Presidents Cup 2019: 18 parting thoughts from Royal Melbourne
MELBOURNE — Well, that was … Dramatic. Intense. Chippy. And close!
The 2019 Presidents Cup exceeded expectations, delivering an action-packed week that kept golf fans Ryder Cup-level captivated. Here are 18 parting thoughts from a pleasantly surprising stay Down Under.
1. We begin with a thought about this Presidents Cup, and Presidents Cups of the past. At the start of the week, it was generally perceived that the United States didn’t care about this event. Golf Twitter had deemed it a useless exhibition, and if you caught some of the players in private, off the record and perhaps after a few cocktails, they’d tell you they’d rather have the week off. Right?
Hogwash. It’s not that the U.S. didn’t care before, it’s that the matches just weren’t close. When you’re up 14½-3½ going into singles, as the Americans were two years ago at Liberty National, it’s tough to look locked-in. But these guys are competitors. You don’t get to the elite tier on the PGA Tour without having an innate desire to win, and because it was clear from Thursday morning on that this would be anything but a cake walk, all 12 U.S. players were just that, absolutely locked in.
2. What a joy it was to see Tiger Woods take apart Royal Melbourne with masterful precision. Of the 24 players who played in the Presidents Cup, Woods was middle of the pack in distance, if not slightly below average. But on a course where distance was secondary to guile, strategy and variety, Tiger wasn’t just the best player on his team. He was the best player in the competition.
I never saw Woods play live at the height of his game in the early 2000s—well, I did, but I wasn’t yet 10 years old, so perhaps my golf analysis wasn’t yet refined. But it’s hard to think it was all that different to watching him from Australia. Woods was in complete control of all aspects of his game, and able to call on most any shot knowing he could pull it off. Seeing it first-hand is an experience I’ll never forget.
3. One more Tiger thing: Much has been written about his softer on-course demeanor since the spinal fusion. It’s true—he’s chattier and friendlier with his playing partners than he used to be … until it’s winning time. Tony Finau told an awesome story about his very limited interactions with Tiger in the final round of this year’s Masters, and Woods had the same game face on Sunday in his singles match against Abraham Ancer.
I can say with some level of confidence that on Sunday at Melbourne, between the handshake on the first tee and the handshake on the 16th green, Woods never made eye-contact with his overmatched opponent. Woods walked well ahead of Ancer in the fairways and picked his tees up extra quickly after every tee shot. It was vintage stuff from the game’s most unforgiving competitor, who clearly derived motivation from Ancer’s taken-out-of-context comments at the Mayakoba Classic. “Abe wanted it; he got it,” Woods said after the 3-and-2 victory. Icy.
4. Now, about that comment at last month’s Mayakoba Classic. Ancer was asked, in Spanish, who he would like to play in singles at the Presidents Cup. Here’s his full answer, also given in Spanish:
“I would like to play against Tiger. But the truth is that our objective is to do everything we can to win. Winning a match in the singles would be very special, so we need to try to get the cup.”
Ancer didn’t say he wanted to play Tiger Woods because he thought he would beat Tiger Woods, or anything like that. This was not Stephen Ames suggested he could beat Tiger "especially where he's hitting the ball." This was a man being honest, saying he, the first Mexican golfer ever to compete in the Presidents Cup, would like to play against the greatest of all time. Can you blame him? It would be such a shame for Ancer to be known, even for a minute, as a guy who “called out” Tiger and then got dusted after doing so. That’s just not what happened. Ancer—a former Australian Open champ who local fans called “Aussie Abe”—was fantastic here, and he should feel nothing but pride in his performance.
5. Ancer only picks up his tees, ball markers and takes the ball out of the hole with his left hand. It is immensely swaggy. Old school and delightful. He has a ton of fire. He’ll be around a while.
6. We’ll continue with some nuggets on the International team members. Let’s start with their best player, Sungjae Im. I can’t say enough good things about this golfing machine, who seems rather content to live a simple life of eating, practicing, playing golf and sleeping. Rinse, repeat. He demolished Gary Woodland in singles on Sunday, and Woodland didn’t play poorly at all. “I played great, and got steamrolled,” Woodland said. Just 21, Im has the potential to be an anchor of International teams for decades to come, and he’s as good a bet as anyone to win multiple majors in the 2020s. I’m buying every available piece of Sungjae Im stock.
7. There was another 21-year-old on the International team, Joaquin Niemann. You know how there are some young athletes who look older than they are—just turn on a college football or basketball game. And then there are some young athletes who somehow look younger than they are. Niemann looks 17 years old, or could be mistaken for 14. But he doesn’t play like it.
8. Ernie Els had to try to win this weekend with only 11 players as Haotong Li, for whatever reason, wasn’t ready to compete. Els had to know it, having benched Li the first two days, and only begrudgingly playing him in Saturday four-balls because the rules required he play once before singles. Partnered with Marc Leishman, Li shot a generous front-nine 41, and he was predictably crushed by Dustin Johnson in singles.
So what was the problem for Li? There appear to be a few contributing factors. First and foremost, he simply hadn’t been playing well of late. With no disrespect to the China Tour Championship, where he finished second two weeks ago, Li hasn’t had a top 10 on any major tour since a T-4 at the European Tour’s China Open in May.
Beyond being in poor form, there were a couple other factors at play, none of which reflect particularly well on the 24-year-old. Li fired his caddie after last month’s DP World Tour Championship and showed up this week with his physio, who doesn’t speak English and had little if any caddieing experience, on the bag. A source with intimate knowledge of the International side said Li was the only player who didn’t listen to Els’ advice on how to play Royal Melbourne. His seeming disinterest was caught on camera when Li was spotted looking at his phone during Els’ speech after the heartbreaking defeat. This International side was a much more cohesive unit than we’ve seen from them before—at least, 11 of them were.
9. There are so many advantages to watching a golf tournament on TV, from getting to see every shot, to hearing the announcers’ analysis, to being able to go to the fridge and grab leftovers during a commercial break. But there are certain things you pick up being at an event that stick with you.
On the 18th green on Sunday, Adam Hadwin had a 12-footer for birdie for what would have been a massive comeback victory over Bryson DeChambeau. Hadwin’s caddie, Joe Cruz, was on the edge of the putting surface consulting his green-reading book—standard procedure (for better or worse) on today’s PGA Tour. But when Hadwin crouched down to read the putt, he turned to Cruz and said, “Joe, forget the book. Let’s do it old school.” It was an awesome moment … one that would have become epic had Hadwin wound up making the putt.
10. Moving over to the American side. You’ve surely read sufficient Patrick-Reed-is-problematic content, and I’m not here to argue with any of it. He’s shockingly tone-deaf at best and downright toxic at worst. With all that said, man, does he have a fantastic short game. He might have the best set of hands on tour, and watching him hit bunker shots is as good as it gets from a purely golf perspective.
11. Speaking of Patricks … Cantlay’s swing looks like the generic swing from the create-a-player function in the old Tiger Woods video games. There is no wasted motion. It’s machine-like. Nobody on the planet finds the sweet spot more frequently than Patrick Cantlay.
12. Tony Finau has become a fixture in recent years on leader boards at golf’s most important tournaments and a member of the last two team-play competitions. His game travels and holds up on the biggest stages. It’s one of the weirdest things, then, that he still has only one victory: the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. Having just turned 30, it’s fair to say that it’s time for Finau to start cashing in on his all-world talent by winning some freakin’ golf tournaments already. He’s past ready to make the leap from exciting newcomer to established champion. He’s extremely overdue.
13. With the U.S. trailing, 10-8, heading into Sunday, a couple stats seemed to make the rounds on Golf Twitter. It was noted the Americans hadn’t won a singles session since 2009, and they hadn’t won 7½ points in singles—what they needed to secure the Cup—since 2005.
Though these numbers were kind of fun, they were also completely meaningless for a couple reasons. Every U.S. team is so very different, and there is a ton of turnover between them. Only one player from this year’s team played on the 2005 and 2009 teams (guess who). Suggesting that the performance of U.S. lineups featuring Chris DiMarco and Scott Verplank means anything in relation to the current team is nonsense. It’s like when they say a certain college team hasn’t beaten another college team in so many years. So what?! There are none of the same players.
The other reason the U.S. hadn’t done well in singles recently? They didn’t have to. The Presidents Cup was more often than not clinched before the singles session draws to its conclusion, meaning the last couple Americans on the course just wanted to finish so they could celebrate with their teammates. Turns out the U.S. can do just fine in singles when needed.
14. I kind of missed Jordan Spieth this week. His game, which would have suited Royal Melbourne quite well. His emotions, which always seem to fire up his teammates. His candor, which always provides great quotes for writers, which of course is extremely important. His sense of humor. His singing. Here’s hoping we don’t see another U.S. team without Jordan Spieth for a long, long while.
15. Royal Melbourne was lavished with praise, and rightfully so. It doesn’t kill you with distance, nor thick rough, nor any tricks at all. It’s as good as it gets in championship golf. However, it’s not the only phenomenal course in the region.
The Australian Sandbelt has uniquely sandy soil and a specific climate that lends itself to great drainage and, thus, super-firm courses that combine the best aspects of links and parkland courses. The bunkers are fantastic and like nothing you’ll see in America (let Geoff Ogilvy explain why). Simply put, it’s a terrific place for a golf trip.
I got a small taste of it when I snuck in a Thursday afternoon nine as the sun set over Victoria Golf Club, which is directly adjacent to Royal Melbourne. I hope heaven is something like an afternoon nine as the sun sets over Victoria Golf Club.
16. How many times did we hear the term “firm and fast” this week? A thousand? A thought experiment: Is it possible for a course—not just putting greens, but the whole course—to be firm but not fast? Or fast but not firm? Why don’t we just save ourselves some keyboard clicks and combine the two words: “This course is firmandfast.”
17. There is nothing like the momentum shifts in match play. At one point on Friday afternoon, the International side held a back-nine lead in all five matches of the foursomes session. It legitimately looked like it would sweep and take a ridiculous 9-1 lead on the Americans. About an hour later, the U.S. had a legitimate chance to sweep the session. Things happen so, so much faster in match play than they do in stroke play.
After every one of these team events, I have the same takeaway: pro golf needs more meaningful match play than one team event and one buzzless WGC each year. I’m not sure what that looks like. Maybe the Tour Championship/FedEx Cup should incorporate some match play? Perhaps a stroke play aspect to narrow it down to eight players, then have them square off for $15 million? I’m spitballing here, but the point is these guys clearly love going head-to-head, and it feels like casual fans can identify more with a putt to win or tie a hole than a putt to save par and keep place in a competition against 150 other players.
18. We always look back on team-play uniforms of decades past and laugh. The horrible picture-frame shirts from the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team come to mind, as do the Europeans’ putrid argyle vests from the Ryder Cup in 2010. So I just want to go on record to say I think the U.S.’s outfits were crispy as can be this week. Credit to Lacoste and whoever whipped up those uniforms.
I will surely look back on this bullet point in 10 years and cringe.