MELBOURNE, Australia -- This one really hurt for the Internationals.
The Presidents Cup has long been the domain of the Americans and they came to Royal Melbourne heavy favourites to triumph easily once again. But first-time captain Tiger Woods and his U.S. team were instead forced to produce a singles rally to lift the Cup Down Under.
Two points up heading into Sunday's singles matches, Ernie Els' side could manage only two wins and a further four half-points as the United States stormed home to a 16-14 win and an 11th victory in the biannual team event.
Some of that can be put down to Els' seven Presidents Cup rookies and a lack of singles match-play experience under such intense pressure. But perhaps that is what makes this defeat so demoralizing, as those same rookies -- with the major exception of Haotong Li and Joaquin Niemann -- had largely acquitted themselves so well earlier in the week.
"The players [were] just incredible. They were open for a new formula, so to speak, and embraced what I said to them ... and here we are. We lost 16-14 and we've got to swallow that," a dejected Els said after his team had watched the Americans hoist the Presidents Cup for the eighth straight time.
Mexican rookie Abraham Ancer went 3-1-1 -- though Woods took great delight in defeating the youngster in Sunday's opening match -- while Korean Sunjae Im was one of only two International singles winners on Sunday as he also finished with a 3-1-1 record. C.T. Pan might have run into a resurgent Patrick Reed in losing 4 and 2, but the rookie from Chinese Taipei had earlier played sparkling golf in notching two four-ball wins on Thursday and Saturday.
Rising Australian star Cameron Smith, meanwhile, relished the pressure- cooker environment on Sunday as he took down the in-form Justin Thomas 2 and 1.
But it was still cold comfort for the 26-year-old.
"It was obviously a good win for myself today, so much emotion in the match, emotion after the match as well," Smith said. "I don't think I've ever been so excited and kind of really gutted in the space of a few minutes."
The International team had clearly relished playing for Els, too.
The South African had spoken continually of sticking to a game plan and the "analytics" he and his vice-captains had used to help build a lead heading into Sunday.
"I would have revealed [the plan] if we'd won," the four-time major champion quipped of the secret formula he had used to build a 10-8 lead going into Sunday's singles.
But it was also an approach that had come within a few putts of a potential 9-1 lead midway through Friday's foursomes. Els knew how costly that could be at the time, even if he didn't let on to his players.
"Absolutely, we talked about that and that was probably the difference," Els said of his side's inability to put the foot on the throat when it looked like they could go into Saturday's matches with a lead that would have left the Americans with simply too much to do.
"We had so much momentum. We had so much going for us and, at the end there, they just won that 18th hole twice and halved it; that's almost two-and-a-half points and look where we are [two points down]. Absolutely that was something.
"I wouldn't say we totally lost momentum but it was, to me, I felt it was a bit of a blow. The team didn't react in that way, which I was pretty proud of. But me, as captain, and I didn't reveal it to them, I felt we had them in the headlock and we didn't quite finish it off in that particular time. There's not many times when you get a team like that under the gun like that ... so it was great, but it could have been unbelievable, it could have been the knockout blow."
The International team of course managed to duke out an unlikely point themselves in Saturday's foursomes when it looked like they could have lost that session 4-0. But it could have all been a moot point had they fully capitalized on the advantage they had built 24 hours earlier.
While he didn't make a decision immediately after Sunday's crushing turnaround, Els did seem to indicate he saw little value in a losing captain having a second crack at the Presidents Cup. A groundswell of support from a group of players who were desperate to win for the South African could change that, no matter how despondent he might be right now.
And once he takes some time to reflect on his efforts, Els may just see the attraction of another shot at the Americans at Quail Hollow in two years' time. He has brought through the next generation of International players and while the disappointment may be crushing right now, the likes of Ancer, Im, Smith and Co. will be better for the experience.
Those youngsters, and captain Els, certainly made an impression on the Internationals' most senior playing member, Adam Scott. The Australian had spoken of a new "energy" in the group earlier in the week and while that had evaporated as all International players and staff sat dejected in front of the media on Sunday afternoon, the former Masters champion isn't ready to walk away from the event as a result.
The fact that Scott is willing to try his hand at another Presidents Cup after losing eight straight himself -- the only player to suffer such a fate -- is perhaps the greatest testament to the change that came across the International squad.
"[The feeling is] hard to digest at the moment, it's incredibly disappointing," Scott, who fell 2 and 1 to Xander Shauffele on Sunday, said.
"It's generally positivity and being optimistic; I like what's happening [and] where this team is going and I'll be working really hard now to be on the team in two more years, if I can keep my game at a good enough level."