CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Trevor Immelman served South American food to his team in the twilight at Quail Hollow Club.
The South African has, by any measure, been a model captain for the International team. For three years, he’s checked every box and turned over every rock – from the gifts he brought to the Presidents Cup for his team (Rolex watches) to the food (each meal is an ode to the culture of one of his players, including rice and kimchi for breakfast).
Immelman had a plan. It was a good plan, thoroughly thought out and researched – play free, play with abandon, play without fear. And then he and his team were punched in the mouth, just like Mike Tyson once warned.
Math requires the disclaimer that this is not over with 20 points still up for grabs over the next two days of team and singles play. Common sense, however, leaves precious little room for that kind of misplaced optimism.
With another 4-1 advantage on Friday, the U.S. team is now pacing Immelman’s side by six points, with an 8-2 lead. For context, the last time the American team took an 8-2 edge into the weekend at the Presidents Cup was in 2017 at Liberty National. The final margin of victory was eight points for the U.S. team, but the more concerning reminder from that match was that the Americans were a single point away from closing the Internationals out on Saturday, rolling to a 14 1/2-to-3 1/2 three-day advantage.
Logic would suggest there’s always room for complacency from the high-flying Americans, but when pressed for the plan going forward Jordan Spieth offered an ominous mission statement for the U.S. team, “Get to 15 ½ [points] as quickly as you can.”
What started to feel like a fightback Friday, with the final three matches all tied late, quickly unraveled into another rout in the making with the U.S. team holding on for two ties and a clutch victory when rookie Max Homa charged in an 11-footer for birdie on the final hole.
That’s right — John Maxwell Homa, the wonderfully endearing and hyper-engaged Presidents Cup first-timer delivered what felt like a haymaker with his clutch play late Friday. Immelman likely was braced for the juggernaut that is Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, who rolled for the second consecutive day to a 3-and-2 victory, and the American staple of Justin Thomas and Spieth, who rolled for the second consecutive day to a 2-and-1 victory, but he probably hadn’t spent much time game planning for the 31-year-old from Burbank, California, who rolled into North Carolina looking like a tourist.
Even if Immelman had seen the likes of Homa coming for the Presidents Cup, it’s not as though he could have done much about it. The majority of the International team that pushed the U.S. side and captain Tiger Woods to the brink late on Sunday in 2019 at Royal Melbourne – Cam Smith, Marc Leishman, Carlos Ortiz, Abe Ancer and Louis Oosthuzien – were lost to LIV Golf. What was left was hungry but, at least for two days, seriously outmatched.
Perhaps the captain has a few more strings to pull, but as he surveyed the landscape late Friday it didn’t seem as though there were many options.
“We've just got to keep fighting, man. Keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Immelman said. “We feel like we've played some pretty good golf, some solid golf tee-to-green, particularly the last couple of days, but we have absolutely been out-putted. No doubt about it.”
With a record eight rookies, Immelman needed production from some unlikely places and it simply has not happened. Tom Kim, the would-be star following a Cinderella climb to begin his career, is now 0-2-0, and Corey Conners and Taylor Pendrith, friends and former college teammates, came up short against Homa and Billy Horschel to drop to the same mark.
That Immelman’s veterans have struggled just as much, with Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama winless through two sessions, is why his team finds itself on the brink of another historic loss. The 2000 U.S. team lapped the Internationals by 11 points, but it’s the ’17 team that set the mark for domination and through two days this American edition has kept pace with that mark having led 113 of the 121 holes that have been played.
“We have really, really, really simple goals. Put the four best alternate-shot teams we can out tomorrow and then put the four best best-ball teams we can out in the afternoon and try to win every session,” U.S. captain Davis Love III said. “It's far from over. We both know that we both have to say something different to our teams tonight, but they're still going to want to play the rest of the weekend.”
Of course, Love would say that. He has a team room full of assassins whose only goal is to bury the opponent. Immelman has passionately searched for the winning answer but for the Americans, it’s as simple as Spieth makes it sound – get to 15 ½ points as quickly as you can.