MELBOURNE — Although the United States continues to dominate the Presidents Cup, including Sunday’s 16-14 victory that gave the Americans their eighth win in a row in the series, this 13th edition at Royal Melbourne was the second straight road game that was much more difficult than anticipated, after the one-point decision in South Korea in 2015.
Despite a record seven rookies on the team, the Internationals captained by Ernie Els put a real scare into the Americans. Els, relying heavily on statistical analytics, managed the International team to a 10-8 advantage heading into Sunday’s 12 singles matches. That was his goal. The Internationals had not compiled double figures in points in team play since they entered the final day of the 2005 matches, tied at 11—and that’s when there were four more team matches than today.
But on Sunday, when the players had to venture out on their own to earn a point, the Americans were overwhelmingly superior.
The U.S. team didn’t have to orchestrate a desperate or frenzied rally, but it did have to dig deep to record the first Sunday comeback in Presidents Cup history. “They went out there and got the points we needed,” said Tiger Woods, who as playing captain got one of them in the opening match against Abraham Ancer. “We fought. Even the points we lost, we were making them earn every one of them, and this Cup wasn't going to be given to us. We had to go earn it, and we did.”
Several factors impacted the final outcome. Things had to break right, not only on Sunday (though mostly) for the U.S. to pull this one out. Here are some of the things that impacted the final outcome:
1. AMERICA OWNED THE 18TH HOLE.
Four key putts on Thursday and Friday either won the U.S. a full point or earned a half. It kept the International team, which gained confidence from an impressive 4-1 first-day lead, from pulling away. The last of those, by Tony Finau in the final four-ball match Saturday morning, kept the U.S. within four points going into their favorite format—foursomes, where the Yanks own a monstrous 50½-20½ advantage throughout the history of the event. Sure enough, the U.S. won three points, and almost won four. That scenario set up the Sunday comeback, the first in Presidents Cup history. “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," Els said. "The team didn't react in that way which I was really proud of, but me as captain, and I didn't reveal it to them, but I felt we had them right in the headlock, and we didn't quite finish it off on that particular time.”
2. PATRICK REED GOT REVIVED
Who knows what goes through this guy’s mind, but he does have his clutch moments when least expected. Downtrodden after three losses with Webb Simpson, and smarting from a constant tongue-lashing from the partisan gallery, Reed, without his regular caddie, whom the PGA Tour benched on Sunday after an altercation with a fan, summoned his best golf of the week and the most brilliant effort this side of his captain. He birdied six of his first seven holes for a 6-up lead on C.T. Pan, and that early flurry was enough for what was a consequential win. Reed's point put America ahead for the first time since a 1-0 lead on Thursday with Woods and Thomas winning the opening four-ball match.
3. DEPTH BEAT ANALYTICS
On Saturday night Els conceded the obvious, that “the U.S. team is deeper,” and he schemed to put out a lineup that could produce the 5½ points necessary to win the Cup. He wasn’t in any way disregarding the talent on his team. It was just fact. So he sacrificed a few players, like the struggling Haotong Li having to face Dustin Johnson. The former U.S. Open winner cruised to a 4-and-3 victory. Though the International team can draw from a bigger pool, the U.S. team has been deeper for years, which is why previous International captain Nick Price argued vociferously to decrease the number of matches from 34 to 30 before the 2017 edition at Liberty National. It didn’t matter that year as the Americans won in a romp. The Internationals fought much more bravely this week, but U.S. depth couldn’t be countered in singles.
4. THE TIGER CAPTAINCY FACTOR
Long ago it was thought that when Jack Nicklaus served as Ryder Cup captain, the first time at age 43, same age as Woods is now, the players who played under him were more than a little intimidated by the presence of the 18-time major winner. He was still very much a contemporary as well as a legend. The players on this Presidents Cup team didn’t harbor the same fears or emotions in relation to Woods, the playing captain this week. As one observer on the team plane put it: "They love Tiger, and they love the idea of playing for Tiger. He has let his guard down with these younger guys, and they are eating it up and will go through a wall for him.” Playing with inspiration instead of with hesitation is a huge difference. It showed.
5. THE TIGER PLAYING FACTOR
Well, if you’re going to make yourself a captain's pick, you better be ready to perform. And he was. He walked the walk. Woods tried to set the tone in the first match of the week, going out with Justin Thomas in four-ball. They won. The Internationals captured the other four matches. He decided to go out again with Thomas in foursomes the next day and won again. Then he led the way in singles by going out first and putting a U.S. point on the board against Abraham Ancer. If anyone saw the opening tee shot, the whole sequence, they would have witnessed Woods blasting a drive and then emphatically turning his back before watching the ball land. There was real attitude there. He wasn’t going to be beaten. This time, he did set the tone.
6. THE COUPLES FACTOR
No one gives this much thought, but Fred Couples has been captain or assistant captain every year since 2009. If he is not the coolest 60-year-old since Frank Sinatra, then he is definitely the coolest 60-year-old golfer. Although Steve Stricker, the winning Presidents Cup captain in 2017, was the acting captain whenever Woods picked up his clubs as player, there is no more calming influence than Couples, the laid-back former Masters champion, who like U.S. rookie Gary Woodland was first a team sports athlete—and a good one—who seems to understand what being a manager or coach is all about. “When Tiger asked me to be captain, it was like all the players, it's an honor. But it's pretty edgy,” Couples said. “And he kept saying to me, ‘How did you do this, how did you do this?’ I said, ‘You've got to keep watching and the points are going to come, and you're just got to believe in every one.’ ” Wise words. Woods repeatedly said the last few days, that he had “trust” in his players.
7. PICKS COME THROUGH
Playing off the trust factor, Woods’ four captains picks played a major role in the victory and were placed in key positions on Sunday. Tony Finau and Reed followed Woods onto the course in singles. Rickie Fowler, who replaced injured Brooks Koepka, was in the anchor spot. They won two points, with Finau gaining a half-point in the second game by rallying from 4 down to tie Hideki Matsuyama. Only Woodland lost in singles, but he scored 1½ points for the week. In fact, all four picks had at least a point. All were crucial in the end. The win was, as Woods said, a collective effort.