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United States team bounces back on second day of International Crown

There was a slightly defiant tone to the four American players who marched into the interview room at Caves Valley Golf Club after being swept by Taiwan in Thursday’s opening matches at the LPGA’s inaugural International Crown.

Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked women’s player in the world, said other teams could struggle as the Americans had. Paula Creamer talked about regaining the momentum the United States had coming in.

Regaining their ability to make birdies, and spurred on by a pro-American crowd at Owings Mills that included Olympic swimming legend and noted golf addict Michael Phelps, the Americans made good on their promises and put themselves back into contention to lift the trophy Sunday.

The United States swept Spain on Friday, with Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson securing an impressive 3 and 2 victory over Belen Mozo and Beatriz Recari and Lewis and Creamer holding on to a 2-up win over Azahara Munoz and Carlota Ciganda.

“We’re right back in the thick of things,” Lewis said Friday as she scanned the large video scoreboard in the press area.

After being the only team not to earn a point Thursday, the United States (four points) now trails fourth-seeded Thailand, Saturday’s opponent, by one point and is tied with eight-seeded Taiwan in Pool A. Spain, seeded fifth, has three points. Third-seeded Japan leads Pool B with six points. Second-seeded South Korea has four, and seventh-seeded Australia and sixth-seeded Sweden each have three.

The two countries with the most points in each pool automatically advance to Sunday’s singles play. The fifth team will be determined by a sudden-death playoff between two players from each pool’s third-place team.

The United States was the only team to change its pairings Friday.

“I think switching up the pairings helped. We just got some different momentum going out there,” said Lewis, who won an alternate-shot, foursome match playing with Creamer in last year’s Solheim Cup.

“We knew we were still in it. That was the big thing. We just had to go out there and fight today, fight for every shot and every putt. We knew the matches were going to be hard just from playing those girls in the Solheim Cup.”

Said Creamer: “We can play with anybody on our team, we can switch tomorrow. You never know what we’re going to do because we have that ability. Obviously, we needed a little bit of a change to get that momentum going.”

Creamer said a team dinner with their caddies and a team liaison Thursday night also helped set the mood for what transpired Friday.

“Just being positive with each other,” Creamer said. “I had a blast. I think everyone had a fun time last night. There were maybe two sentences spoken about golf the whole night. We came out today and we had a mission that we wanted to accomplish, and we all did a good job.”

The U.S. comeback could be heard in the chants of the crowd, particularly as Kerr and Thompson were combining for eight birdies — and an eagle, by the 19-year-old Thompson — while the Lewis-Creamer duo were making eight birdies total.

The Americans’ continued presence near or at the top of the points list certainly will help boost interest over the weekend.

While Kerr and Thompson’s victory was fairly routine — after an early two-hole lead had disappeared by the turn, they won the first three holes on the back nine — things got a little tight for Lewis and Creamer toward the end.

Three up with four holes to play, the Americans watched Munoz make birdie on the par-5 14th hole to close the gap. After all four players made par on the par-5 16th, Carlota Ciganda holed a long birdie putt on 17 to pull within one.

It was the fifth of eight tournament matches to come down to the par-4 18th hole.

“We walked off of 17 and I said [to Creamer], ‘There’s still an American flag up there’” on the scoreboard, indicating that the U.S. was in the lead, said Lewis, who had bogeyed the par-3 17th after putting her tee shot into a pond. “We said, ‘Two balls in the fairway, two balls on the green,’ and we did that. And that put a lot of pressure on them.”

All four players put their tee shots in the fairway. After Lewis and Creamer landed their approach shots on the green, about 20 feet from the cup, both Munoz and Ciganda found greenside bunkers.

“I would say it was a little bit of a relief when they hit in the bunker,” Lewis said. “But until they hit the bunker shots, I don’t think we were relaxed at all.”

The Spaniards got out of the sand, but neither came close to the flagstick. Creamer lagged to within a foot, and Spain conceded the hole and the match.

“We played pretty solid from tee to green, but not until the end did we start making putts,” Munoz said. “We just didn’t make putts today. In match play, you have to.”

The revival of the U.S. breathed some life back into its fans, including Phelps, who slapped hands with Creamer and Lewis as they reached the ninth tee.

“I have to say, that was the highlight of the day … shaking Michael Phelps’ hand,” said Creamer, still a little starstruck from the encounter. “But I haven’t washed my hand yet.”

If Creamer considers it a good-luck charm, she might consider not washing it until after the United States plays Saturday against fourth-seeded Thailand, which on Friday swept the same Taiwan team that swept the Americans on Thursday.

Asked whether being less familiar with Thailand’s team than it was with Spain’s might hurt the United States on Saturday, Creamer said: “Team Thailand is strong. The two sisters [Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn] are a good team, and the other two [Pornanong Phatlum and Onnarin Sattayabanphot] aren’t messing around, either.”

Thailand’s players didn’t seem intimidated by the prospect of having to play the U.S. in two critical matches Saturday.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for both of our teams,” Sattayabanphot said. “Team Thailand and the Americans, you never know. Just come out and watch.”

After what happened Friday, that sounded like a good idea for local golf fans. After all, the Americans are back in contention at the first International Crown.

Just as they said they would be.

don.markus@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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