INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) - It was a day of great escapes and blown opportunities for the Internationals on day three of the Presidents Cup, while Jordan Spieth delivered a birdie blitz to help keep the United States a point in front with just Sunday’s singles matches to come.
The International team looked set to get their noses in front at the biennial event for the first time in a decade but squandered several solid leads and split the eight points on offer to end Saturday trailing 9.5 to 8.5.
They will have their work cut out to get the seven points they need from Sunday’s 12 singles to win the Presidents Cup for the first time since 1998. No team has ever won the Cup after going into the singles matches trailing.
History is not the only obstacle they will have to overcome -- world number one Spieth has finally caught fire.
After partnering Dustin Johnson to a narrow morning win over Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel, Spieth returned in the afternoon with Patrick Reed to defeat the same International pair in the four-balls, sealing the match 3&2 in near darkness.
“I would call it unplayable,” said Spieth, who holed eight birdies in the 16 holes played. “If it was a tied match, we would not have played the 16th hole. It was too dark.”
Phil Mickelson, who sat out the morning action, teamed up with trusted partner Zach Johnson in the afternoon to defeat Adam Scott and Anirban Lahiri 3&2.
“The entire Presidents Cup is going to come down to tomorrow’s singles matches,” said Mickelson, who needed a captain’s pick to make the team but has claimed 2.5 points from his three matches.
The U.S. players had been rubbing Mickelson’s belly for luck during the early foursomes but Bubba Watson should perhaps have rubbed a bit harder.
After snapping his driver on the practice range and needing a replacement rushed to him out on the course, the left-hander muffed a five-foot putt on 18 that would have sealed a foursomes win with partner J.B. Holmes over Scott and Marc Leishman.
The U.S. pair then became the fourth straight victims of Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, who continue to complement each other on and off the course.
“Whenever someone made a mistake, the other one was there,” said Oosthuizen. “I wasn’t sharp this afternoon. I had a few good shots but Branden was unbelievable.”
Australian Scott, in his seventh Presidents Cup, endured another woeful day on the greens, finding precious little encouragement after switching from a cross-handed to a ‘claw’ grip with the conventional putter.
Scott has had to abandon his preferred broomstick-style putter with a ban on ‘anchoring’ coming into effect in January.
South Korean Bae Sang-moon, meanwhile, put on a putting masterclass as he and Hideki Matsuyama halved their foursomes match with Bill Haas and Matt Kuchar before hammering Jimmy Walker and Chris Kirk 6&5 in the afternoon.
Bae holed three birdie putts in a row at one point from a combined distance of 50 feet as the Asian duo went nine under through their 13 holes.
Such was their dominance that Walker and Kirk thought the match was over at 12, taking off their hats and offering handshakes of congratulations, much to the bewilderment of the opposition.
Their stay of execution was short-lived, however, as they ran out of holes with a halve at 13.
The International team are chasing just their second win at the biennial event while the United States are going for their ninth victory in 11 editions of the Cup, which is being played in Asia for the first time this year.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem announced earlier on Saturday that the 2019 Presidents Cup would be returning to Melbourne, where it was staged in 1998 and 2011.
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty