October 1, 2009

Perpetual Guests

How to explain the U.S.'s dominant record in the Presidents Cup? As John Huggan says, it might have something to do with where the matches are staged

Ernie Els feels that he and the rest of his International teammates would have more success if the location of the Presidents Cup varied more.

Ernie Els feels that he and the rest of his International teammates would have more success if the location of the Presidents Cup varied more.

In any sport, one of the basic prerequisites of the truly memorable and iconic contest is that two evenly matched combatants must go at it in an environment where one side is not too heavily favored over the other. From such balance comes brilliance.

Sometimes, however, such a happy state of affairs isn't so easy to achieve. Sadly, bias is everywhere and nowhere is that more true than in golf at the highest level. Look at the so-called "World" Golf Championships that have so often taken place within the United States and, well, hardly anywhere else. Or the long-term fact that three of the four major championships are annually played out in front of Uncle Sam's nieces and nephews.

Then there's the Presidents Cup. Since the inaugural matches in 1994, the biennial battle between the United States and an International side drawn from everywhere other than Europe has hardly been the golfing equivalent of Switzerland, neutral to the last. Next week's meeting at Harding Park will be the sixth of eight to be played in North America; and so far the United States has lost only once.

"The Presidents Cup is run by the U.S. tour and exists for their benefit," points out South African Ernie Els, who will be making his sixth appearance for the almost perennially visiting side in San Francisco. "Which is fine. But I do have one big problem with it. I would love for them to move it around the world more. If we are really going to be an international team, then we need to go to more international venues.

"I understand the television rights argument and all of that. I know they always want to play it as close as possible to the U.S. And I'm not saying the Presidents Cup isn't a good idea. But a big part of the reason our record is so bad is that, too often, the U.S. team is playing at home, or virtually at home. It was sort of fine when the event began; in order to get it established we played in the United States three of the first four times. But look at the two best matches we have had. Both were played well outside the U.S., one in Australia and the other in South Africa. There is a reason for that.

"It just isn't right to play in North America all the time. When we're in the U.S. the home team obviously gets most of the support. And it was the same when we were in Canada last time. Most of the crowd seemed to be cheering for the Americans. That's my 'nag 'with the whole thing."

Still, there is much that is good about the Presidents Cup, even if it has, more often than not, failed to live up to pre-match expectations as far as competitiveness is concerned. On only three occasions has the eventual winning margin between the sides been less than five points.

"The Presidents Cup is similar to the Seve Trophy in that is played in a friendly, good-humoured atmosphere," states former European Tour player Ewen Murray, who has commentated on three 'PCs' for Britain's Sky television. "It is a great exhibition of international team golf and has much more of a bridge-building spirit about it than the Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup is much more 'us and them.' So who wins the Presidents Cup has always seemed to me to be less important all round."

Another problem for the generally disparate International side (as many as eight countries are represented this time round) has inevitably been the generation of a feeling of togetherness.

"Our team spirit tends to build through the week," says Els. "There is always plenty of banter between the Australians and the South Africans, who tend to make up most of the side (six of the 12 on this occasion). But whom do we play for? In the end, we play for each other. We don't play for a continent or a country.

"Back in 1996 we lost a very close one at that strange course near Washington. I think Freddie (Couples) made a huge putt on the last to beat Vijay (Singh). We had a great team spirit that year. We were in a cottage afterwards. Everyone had a beer. And we went round the room -- wives included -- and spoke about how special it had been to play for each other. There were a few tears shed.

"It helps that so many Aussies and South Africans make the side each time. We all have a lot of pride when it comes to representing our countries. We are used to our teams doing well in things like rugby and cricket. That feeling is harder for some of the other guys to grasp, I think. So playing for a team comes a little more naturally for us than it does a Korean or for someone like Vijay. It can be hard to switch from playing for yourself into team mode."

Significantly, the International side's greatest Presidents Cup moments have all taken place outside the United States. At Royal Melbourne in 1998, the Jack Nicklaus-led US side was subjected to a nine-point shellacking from Peter Thomson's team. And at Fancourt in South Africa five years later, the matches ended in their only tie.

"I almost felt like the host that year," smiles Els. "I have a home right there on the beach at Fancourt. One of the days we got hammered; I think we lost 5-0. So we all went back to the house. I got a pile of steaks about an inch thick and threw them on the barbeque. We had a few drinks and I could see all the guys relaxing. That was a great moment. And the next day we beat them 5-0.

"Our weakness has always been the bloody foursomes. We always get behind playing them. Then we have to come back. So we need to work on that."

And a real home game now and again wouldn't hurt either, one suspects.