By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The United States maintained their grip on the Presidents Cup on Friday, holding off a late charge by the Internationals to split the opening four-ball matches 3-3 as the Royal Melbourne course bared its teeth amid searing northerly winds.
With the temperature soaring above 34 degrees Celsius and swirling gusts buffeting the famed sandbelt course, players on both teams were dumbstruck by the pace of the flint-hard greens but the U.S. made enough of their chances to hold a 7-5 lead going into the weekend.
Phil Mickelson, who teamed up with Jim Furyk again to down Australia's Adam Scott and Kim Kyung-tae 2&1 for the pair's second win, described the conditions as "crazy".
"This was a case where we're trying to read the wind on the putts," the four-times major champion said in a greenside interview. "I hit a couple of good putts that didn't go in and it kind of affected my confidence."
After stumbling with a late bout of nerves in Thursday's opening foursomes, the Internationals showed grit to grind out three tense victories to square the day's ledger.
Aaron Baddeley gained a measure of redemption following his meltdown at the 18th tee on Thursday, calmly sinking the winning putt from four feet on the last after carrying his wayward playing partner Jason Day to a one-up victory over Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson.
"I was super disappointed yesterday because Jason played so well yesterday and I really feel like I let him down and the team down a little bit," the Australian told reporters.
"So to be able to bounce back today and get out there on a tough day and do the job, it was good."
His compatriot Geoff Ogilvy also showed nerves of steel to roll in the winner on the 18th against Bill Haas and Nick Watney.
South Africans Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel notched the Internationals' final point with a 2&1 victory over Hunter Mahan and David Toms.
While the points were shared, the Americans could claim the moral victory, as three of their pairings enjoyed lop-sided victories to silence the packed galleries at Royal Melbourne.
U.S. captain Fred Couples's decision to split Woods and Stricker paid off well for one half, as Stricker's playing partner Matt Kuchar notched four birdies in his first 12 holes.
Kuchar rolled a 40-feet putt from the apron of the 12th which burned the edge of a greenside bunker before dropping into the cup to the delight of spectators as the pairing marched to a crushing 4&3 victory over Australia's Robert Allenby and YE Yang of South Korea.
Presidents Cup rookies Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson made it two in a row over South Africa's Ernie Els and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, sealing a 3&1 victory on the 17th hole.
They were rewarded with a third match-up against Allenby and Ogilvy in Saturday's final foursomes.
"I'm riding his coat-tails pretty good right now so that's how we got two Ws (wins) out of it," answered Watson when asked whether he hoped to be paired with Simpson again.
Woods, who proved a controversial captain's pick, remains his team's only player not to reap a point.
"We are up by two points, and that's really all I care about at the moment. And I would say Tiger does the same," said Couples.
The players wrap up the final foursomes and four-ball matches on Saturday, with a change in the weather expected to bring rain showers and a wind from the south.
"Anyone breaking par, it's an astonishing score, but it's there if you play great shots," said former U.S. Open champion Ogilvy, who owns a house near the course.
"It's frustrating to play, but it's also great fun to play like that for anyone that has not seen Royal Melbourne in weather like that before."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)