MELBOURNE — Patrick Reed, Patrick Reed, Patrick Reed.
And now that’s done. We suspected he’d be the story of the week the minute he raked the sand in the Bahamas, the suspicion has come true, and the storyline isn’t going anywhere. But if you’re looking for a Patrick Reed safe space, you’ve found it. The rest of this article, looking at the best storylines of the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, will not mention that name even one more time.
“What name?” you ask.
Let’s begin our journey with the man who, at this moment in time, is the literal opposite of [name redacted]:
1: Is Justin Thomas the new Captain America?
Let’s go to the stats: in two Presidents Cup, the current “Captain America,” [name redacted], is 4-3-2, plus 7-3-2 in the Ryder Cup, for a cumulative 11-6-4 record. Good, but Justin Thomas, in just one Presidents Cup and one Ryder Cup is 7-2-1. That’s already a better winning percentage, and with a great weekend at Royal Melbourne, Thomas could have a truly gaudy team match-play mark. There’s also this: Everyone likes him. Tiger wants to play with him, the team looks to him as a leader, and his attitude is the perfect mix of friendly and competitive that match-play events demand. The media love him, too, and even without comparing him to [name redacted], he’s the perfect ambassador for the U.S. with foreign fans. Finally, he gets bonus points for not being a “distraction” before or after these events, unlike … well, you know.
JT deserves the title of Captain America, but because that name has already been used, and because Thomas is on the way to world domination, I have a better idea: Captain Planet.
2. Player, captain, or both?
A lot has been written about Tiger functioning as a playing captain (some of it by me), but we learned something interesting on Wednesday afternoon, which is that when Woods is playing, the captaincy will default to Steve Stricker. That hierarchy makes sense, but it will be worth watching to see how Tiger schedules his own matches to give himself as much chance to captain as possible. Fred Couples said in the same presser that he expects Tiger to play only three matches, and we already know that one of them will come on Thursday. It’s unlikely he’ll sit both sessions on Saturday, which means Friday should be a rest-and-evaluate day, and the only question is which session he’ll play Saturday. Then again, if he and JT light it up Thursday, there’s a chance he could keep the heat on and play all five.
3. Can Ernie Els be the Tony Jacklin of our time?
A big theme of the International team this year is how it has attempted to forge team chemistry far more comprehensively than in years past. The players made sure to meet in New Orleans and elsewhere earlier this year, they have a new logo designed to promote a group identity, and they’re doing everything they can to foster team unity despite disparate cultures and, in some cases, languages. That’s a process that took the entire week in the past—a classic peak-too-late phenomenon—but Els’ goal is to get them clicking in time for Thursday’s first match.
What he’s trying to accomplish has a historical parallel with the European Ryder Cup teams of the mid-1980s. Like Els, captain Tony Jacklin inherited a team that had been reliably destroyed by the Americans for decades, and within five years, a span encompassing three captaincies, he had revolutionized his team while revitalizing the Ryder Cup. His legacy lives on with a mostly unbroken chain of succession (cough Nick Faldo cough), and he transformed a ho-hum event into a biennial barnburner.
That’s the ambitious role Els will attempt to play, and he seems to at least have more of a plan than his predecessors. It won’t necessarily translate to a win, but he seems committed to changing the piecemeal mind-set around his team, which is the only thing that can transform the Presidents Cup itself.
4. Ernie Els, stat-head
Els is also using statistics to create pairings in a way that hasn’t been done before in the Presidents Cup, as Ben Everill covered for the PGATour.com. To continue the European parallels, Els is employing the firm 15th Club to advise him on pairings based on advance analytics, just as it has done for the European Ryder Cup team. Interesting, some of the pairings they came up with were not what the players might have requested and, per Everill, they aren’t what Els expected, either. Still, he’s pushing ahead, as Thursday’s pairings show—it’s all part of the new regime—and Geoff Ogilvy said on Wednesday that the team has “bought in completely … everybody believes that they are with the right guy, and everybody’s out in the right groups, and the captain’s got a plan.” If the International pairings work, it will raise big questions for the Americans about whether they should introduce a similar system.
5. The Presidents Cup legacy of Adam Scott, journeyman
Attaching the word “journeyman” to Adam Scott feels wrong—he’s the picture of grace and elegance on the golf course, and his behavior off achieves the heights of “class” that pundits and PR reps are so eager to attach to those less deserving. The 39-year-old Aussie is like the Humphrey Bogart of golf, which stands in contrast to the idea of a lifelong grinder. But in terms of the Presidents Cup, that’s what Scott is. His lifetime record is 14-20-5 over eight Cups, and though that falls well short of .500, the Internationals’ legacy of losing means he should be graded on a curve. To me, that’s the equivalent of a .500 lifer, and the only players with more wins for the Internationals are Els and Vijay Singh. With a successful session at Royal Melbourne, Scott could creep closer to an all-time record that seems like his birthright—he already has the record for most losses—and lead the Internationals to a paradigm-shifting win.
6. Who will be the year’s surprise performer?
There’s usually an unexpected star or two at team events like these, and if you ask Rickie Fowler, he believes Gary Woodland could be the man for the way he controls his ball flight. The truth is, though, that the Internationals are more likely to field the big surprise this year for the simple fact that they have more players flying under the radar. If they want to win, they’ll need to get some unexpected magic from a player like C.T. Pan, or Abraham Ancer, or Sungjae Im—someone low on the world ranking that becomes the International Poulter. At least for a week.
7. The greens
I was riding around the course with superintendent Richard Forsythe on Tuesday, and he was demonstrating the outrageous firmness of the greens by bouncing a ball off the bentgrass surface. They import the grass seed specially from the U.K. (it’s called Sutton’s Mix, for the real grass-heads), and while he was demonstrating, K.J. Choi walked over. Forsythe asked him if he liked the greens, and Choi, smiling incredulously, said, “You play golf?” He then bounced his ball off the green, and said, “Is Wimbledon!” Then he got serious and hinted he wanted the greens much slower.
In short, it is going to be extremely difficult to hold the green on even the “easy” approaches, and despite the relatively short length of Royal Melbourne, these greens—as well as the similarly firm fescue surrounding them—make it a very tough second-shot course. (The wind will not help, even though it will mercifully blow from the south and save us from stifling heat.) Every American quote on the topic sounds like just Gary Woodland, who said, “we don’t see this anywhere else. I haven’t seen balls bounce on the green like that.” Iron play will be critical, and errant drives that leave a poor angle of attack will be punished severely. If this were a Ryder Cup, the Europeans would love it.
8. The flies
Sweet God, the flies.
9. The pairings drama
Who won Wednesday’s opening duel between the captains? The scoreboard will tell the story, of course, but playing Thursday morning quarterback, I think Els had the better of the draw, if only slightly. Which doesn’t mean his team will earn more points—he still has the inferior players—but unlike the Ryder Cup with its blind draw, the back-and-forth nature of team selection puts a premium on picking good match-ups. A good captain can chisel away key points here and there with smart management.
10. The opening session—and the first match
In 2017, the Americans led, 3½-1½, after the first session. In 2015, their lead was 4-1. In 2013, 3½-2½. In 2011, 4-2. This pattern continues all the way to 2005, the last time the Internationals held a lead after session one. That has to change this year. Getting even more molecular, they have an incredible opportunity in the first match, when Marc Leishman and Joaquin Niemann, both on decent-to-good form, face Tiger and Justin Thomas. If Leishman and Niemann can do the unthinkable and beat the American super-team, the whole competition looks different, and it will imbue their teammates with confidence. But if the U.S. races out ahead yet again, it will be another uphill slog for the Internationals, likely ending the same way it always ends. Team Man-Mann has the most important job of the day.