The Americans' great escape at the 2019 Presidents Cup was more bizarre than you remember
Editor’s Note: Golf Digest contributor Shane Ryan’s book, The Cup They Couldn’t Lose: America, the Ryder Cup and the Long Road to Whistling Straits came out earlier this summer (Hachette Books, $29 hardcover). The book explores the modern history of the matches between the U.S. and Europe that led to the showdown at Whistling Straits in 2021. In this excerpt, Ryan revisits the near-disaster that came nearly 21 months before in Melbourne at the Presidents Cup in December 2019, where the U.S. met an unexpected challenge from Ernie Els and the International Team.
We knew Australia was burning. We could smell it in the air.
As omens go, it was almost too good, and certainly better than we deserved—the unseen fires, closer all the time, heralded by the faint odor of smoke … the vapors of the coming wrath. A better thinker, one more in tune with the apocalyptic thunderclaps arriving by the minute, might have seen the shape of what was hurtling toward us down the doomsday pipeline. Not me. I had just survived the miserable cramped plane ride from Los Angeles, 15 godforsaken hours, and the only selfish concern in my head was that they’d hold off the flames long enough to stage the Presidents Cup.
In Sydney, where the Australian Open golf tournament had been played a week earlier, the effect from the bushfires was so bad that just breathing the city air for a day was the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes. On the course, the players coughed through the smoke, eyes burning, and couldn’t see where their balls landed through the haze.
In those days of ignorance, we still thought that the Ryder Cup would be played in 10 months in Wisconsin, at an idyllic course called Whistling Straits. We’d learn a little in Australia about the team, the captains and whether their collective psyche had recovered from the drubbing handed to them by the Europeans outside Paris at the 2018 Ryder Cup—a loss so bad that it called into question every bit of progress they were supposed to have made since 2014, through the “task force” that emerged in the aftermath of the previous drubbing in Scotland.
Silvie Paladino sings Australia's national anthem during opening ceremonies prior the opening round of play at Royal Melbourne.
Tiger Woods would serve as playing captain for the Americans in Melbourne, but my eyes were on his assistant, Steve Stricker, the man set to take center stage in Wisconsin. His choice was historic in an unusual way—he would be the first American Ryder Cup captain not to have won a major—yet not exactly inspiring, at least if masculine charisma and career accomplishments are your criteria. Was there anything to the man, so slight, so nervous? We didn’t quite know.
And there was something else we didn’t know: 5,000 miles to the northwest, in a Chinese provincial capital called Wuhan, a handful of otherwise healthy people were coming down with pneumonia with no explanation. By the time they figured it out, it was already too late—the entire world was about to be shattered, and the effects would trickle down everywhere. Even to golf, and even to the Ryder Cup.
That week in Melbourne, we were living in the last days of the pre-COVID era, when all we had to worry about were jet lag, an inscrutable captain, and the ominous fires just out of sight, forecasting our grim future.
“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!” —Duke the trainer, just as Rocky begins to beat the hell out of Apollo Creed
The one near guarantee in Melbourne was that the Americans would win. Prior to 2019, in 12 Presidents Cups, the U.S. won 10 and tied another. The Americans’ lone loss had happened 21 years earlier, and on paper they were miles better than the International team captained by Ernie Els, who would arrive at Royal Melbourne with a motley 12-man crew that included seven newcomers to the competition.
There was no reason to suspect trouble, and history made the Americans oblivious. They had no clue what Els had planned for them, that for the first time, an International team captain was taking the Presidents Cup very seriously, and thinking not just of victory in Australia, but of the future. Els’ goal was to also turn the International Team into an institution that could regularly compete. Els and his unlikely team were on the verge of making the 2019 Presidents Cup a shocking, unqualified success, and seriously rattling the cages of the complacent Americans.
Ignorant to all of this, the Americans came in woefully unprepared. On Monday night, on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne’s business district, I watched Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele take the stage at a promotional event just hours after emerging from the charter plane that had taken all 12 on Woods’ team from the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Exhaustion painted their faces, and a bleary-eyed Thomas barely had the energy to crack a joke about his fatigue. Their travel experience was more luxurious than mine by a factor of about a thousand, but I recognized my own raw mental state in them. Call it Trans-Pacific Travel Dread—a mixture of confusion, anxiety and comprehensive weariness that comes from spending a full day in the air and landing in a strange land where winter has become summer and you’ve skipped ahead a full day.
Not an auspicious start. And amid the fatigue, the ugly specter of American dysfunction was already raising its head. This was the week when Patrick Reed managed to finally, and emphatically, kill his viability as a captain’s pick.
Reed’s magnificent early career at the Ryder Cup came to a sudden halt in Paris 2018, where he hacked his way to two losses the first two days and put the first dent in his Captain America image. After the team loss, he made the bizarre choice to unleash on U.S. captain Jim Furyk in a phone call to his anointed media confessor, Karen Crouse of the New York Times. He said he felt “blindsided” when Furyk didn’t pair him with Jordan Spieth, his old reliable partner. “The issue’s obviously with Jordan not wanting to play with me,” he said, and went on to decry the “buddy system” that left him out in the cold. (On this, sources have told me he was right—Spieth called Furyk before the Ryder Cup and asked not to be paired with Reed.) Reed concluded with great irony by blaming the American failure on the fact that the players couldn’t leave their egos at the door.
It was a shocking display of mutiny, and the fact that he expected a positive outcome from attacking a respected figure like Furyk showed a level of delusion that was almost unbelievable. It was even more shocking, then, when Woods selected Reed as a captain’s pick for Melbourne a year later. Reed had apparently “cleared the air” with Tiger and his American teammates, but to take someone like Reed for a team event is to take a big risk—to balance his incredible skill at match play with the decent chance that he’ll become a fully malignant clubhouse cancer.
If nothing else, it was clear Reed had one more chance to ingratiate himself with his team and to behave like someone who could be trusted. His only job was to avoid doing something stupid between his selection and the final day of play in Australia.
And then, a week before the Presidents Cup, came the incident in the Bahamas—the sand, the allegations of cheating, the nonstop coverage. It forced the American team to defend Reed, or at least stay silent, which put them in an impossible situation after an obvious violation that would have horrified most of them to commit.
On that front, the only player on the International team who spoke out unapologetically was Cameron Smith, the 26-year-old Aussie. While everyone else was giving the standard “We’ve moved on” quotes, Smith unloaded both barrels. “To give a bit of a bullshit response like the camera angle,” he said, “that’s pretty up there. … I don’t have any sympathy for anyone that cheats. I hope the crowd absolutely gives it to not only him, but everyone [on the U.S. team] next week.”
Coupled with the exhausting travel, it would further burden a team that was already in trouble. This was the definition of the dreaded distraction, but it put the most pressure on Reed. Making a deal with the devil is useful only if the devil can give you something important in exchange, and everyone was watching.
Royal Melbourne is the kind of golf club that gets the diehards salivating, and with good reason: in the baked summer climate of southern Australia, it stands out as a beautiful, temperamental piece of architecture.
A northerly wind blew on Monday, picking up heat from the Outback, driving temperatures into triple digits and bringing the dreaded musca vetustissima, the “bush fly” that is attracted to human bodily fluids and wreaks havoc on anyone deranged enough to step outside. By Tuesday, the wind had changed, coming from the south and leading to far cooler temperatures and fewer flies. It stayed that way for the remainder of the week, a small blessing for Americans journeying from winter conditions.
Royal Melbourne's greatness comes from its use of the natural geography, as seen here on the par-3 16rth of the East course.
The matches for the first four-ball session were announced on Wednesday night, and the most interesting pick of the session came almost immediately, when Tiger selected himself and Justin Thomas to face Marc Leishman and Joaquín Niemann. It’s no surprise that Tiger chose Thomas as his partner. With his friend Spieth missing from the team after a tough year, Thomas was the man everyone wanted to play with. The 26-year-old from Louisville had already emerged as one of the great team match-play golfers on the American side—in one Presidents Cup and one Ryder Cup, he’d gathered a 7-2-1 record—and depending on how things went in Melbourne, he’d have a chance to stake his claim as the “real” Captain America.
He and Tiger would win that opening match, 4 and 3, but it would be the only match the Americans won on Thursday. Elsewhere, it was a shocking call to arms for the Internationals, who took a 4-1 lead on the strength of Els’ master plan. Mixing veterans with rookies and relying on statistics to find the best pairings within that framework, Els dialed the right numbers up and down the board.
I followed Reed that morning to see how the Australian fans treated him in his match with Webb Simpson against C.T. Pan and Hideki Matsuyama. Under gray skies and a mist so light it barely deserved the name, Reed emerged from the crowd and strode onto the first tee. When the music died, the time had come to unleash hell on the American.
“Are you going to make your caddie carry 14 clubs and a shovel?” shouted one.
“Improve your lie off the tee!” screamed another.
The insults got less clever from there, with a few cries of “Sand wedge!” and “Tell me where the bunkers are!” and the extremely blunt, unfriendly “Cheater!”
Reed, impassive in the face of the barrage, stepped up to hit his first drive, and because life has a sense of humor, it rolled into the greenside bunker. When it disappeared over the ledge on the big screen, the crowd roared its appreciation, and one of the Aussies sent him off with a warning: “Patrick, there’s cameras out there, too!”
So it began. He marched on in that hostile land, finding the sand on each of the first three holes. Reed and Simpson could have staved off the broader American disaster with even a half point, but instead they lost, 1 up, to give the Internationals their big lead. It was not just the first lead they’d had after the first session since 2005, but the best lead they’d ever had at that point.
Ernie Els and the International team had things rolling on Day 1 at Royal Melbourne.
David Cannon/Getty Images
Friday brought with it the first alternate-shot session, and late in the afternoon, things were proceeding so badly for the Americans that an 8-2 score felt downright realistic. With a margin like that, and only 15½ points needed to secure the Cup, it’s no exaggeration to say that the event would have been effectively over before the weekend.
Instead, still tired and confused, the Americans managed to shake off their fatigue to produce some very late magic. Call it a rearguard action, highlighted by Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele making a critical birdie on the 18th hole to beat Niemann and Adam Hadwin. In the most iconic moment of the day, Thomas rose to the occasion yet again for the Americans, burying a 15-footer for the win on the 18th hole. When the ball went down, he turned to his partner Tiger, stomped his feet dramatically on the green, and shouted, “I love me some me!” It was a line borrowed from an old Terrell Owens video that had been making the rounds among the team.
Miraculously, the Americans were trailing by just 3 points overall.
On Saturday, after Reed and Simpson suffered another loss, an incredible bit of news began to circulate in the media center: Kessler Karain, Reed’s caddie, had gotten into a fight with a fan.
Barstool Sports came out with the first statement from Karain, who wrote, “I had had enough … riding on the cart, guy was about 3 feet from Patrick and said, ‘You f***ing suck.’ I got off the cart and shoved him, said a couple things, probably a few expletives. Security came and I got back in the cart and left.”
Patrick Reed drew the ire of the home crowds, the confrontations getting physical when Reed's caddie, Kessler Karain, was involved in a altercation with a fan.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan set up a meeting with Karain and quickly did the only thing he could do, which was to ban him from Sunday singles.
At that point, the American embarrassment felt well and truly complete. All that remained was to complete the disaster on the course, slink back to America and ponder what it all meant for the next year.
But Thomas simply refused. He kept his team alive with 1½ more points on Saturday, dragging the Internationals back to earth in a lonely and stubborn act until reinforcements could arrive. The score by day’s end was just 10-8 to the Internationals. The American team was finally awake, and its superior talent was about to become decisive.
Justin Thomas' 'love me some me' moment with Tiger Woods.
Sunday singles is where narratives go to die. For three days, Els had dominated with a lesser team. Despite the fact that he was facing an opponent with players from the same country who all spoke the same language, the Big Easy had somehow built a more cohesive unit. In terms of tactics, he’d run circles around Woods, and it was only due to bad luck that his team wasn’t leading by an insurmountable margin.
Once the players walk to the first tee on Sunday, though, the captain’s influence dwindles to almost nothing. It was time for the players to take over, and the Americans shone brighter from the start.
The story that resonates most from that final session came at the fifth hole, with Schauffele 1 up on Adam Scott. This was an incredibly important match for Scott—not only was pride at stake, but he was playing in front of his home crowd, and his team was relying on the nine-time Presidents Cup participant to deliver a point. Els was standing on the tee at the par-3 fifth, and though Scott wanted to hit a 9-iron, Els advised him to use an 8-iron instead to cut through the wind. Scott hesitated, but eventually relented. He flushed his 8-iron, and it went directly at the flag … and over the green. His lie was so bad that he had to take a drop, and by the time it was over, he had handed Schauffele the hole and a 2-up lead.
The walk to the sixth tee was a long one, and while observing Scott, Schauffele realized exactly how angry he was at Els’ intervention. He turned to his caddie, Austin Kaiser, and conveyed a simple message: He’s pissed off, and it’s time to take advantage. The attitude was aggressive—press when you sense weakness—but later, Schauffele explained that there was a more practical side, too. On the back nine, he was sure Scott would make a run, propelled by the crowd, and a slim lead wasn’t going to be enough. Now was the time to run up the score and prepare for the onslaught.
With Scott mired in frustration, Schauffele won the next two holes to go 4 up, and by the time Scott recovered and made his predicted late charge, he couldn’t get closer than 2 up, and Schauffele survived for a 2-and-1 win. With that victory against one of the game’s great veterans, Schauffele showed a remarkable sense of match play psychology—a surprising trait in someone so young, and one that would show up again at Whistling Straits.
The way Xander Schauffele took command of his singles match with Adam Scott was a microcosm of how the Americans were able to turn up the heat and steal back the victory on Sunday at Royal Melbourne.
The International dream ended slowly but inexorably. Tiger, off in the first match against Abraham Ancer never trailed. On the back he hit the gas and put him away on the 16th. Haotong Li, the black sheep of the International team, was eaten alive by Dustin Johnson. Cantlay throttled Niemann, Schauffele took down the ice-cold Scott in front of his home crowd, and both young Americans finished 3-2 in their first major Cup competition.
Armed police followed Reed around the course, confronting the fans whose voices stood out against the crowd, entering the stands when necessary and threatening to throw them off the course.
“I didn’t even say anything personal!” one Aussie complained after calling Reed a “cheater” and a “disgrace.”
Reed looked tired, like he only wanted the mercy of the finish line. But he also won, and it was a critical point—for a little while, it looked like the Internationals might still force at least a tie. Smith came away with a late win against Thomas, who had run completely out of steam. That left Oosthuizen and Leishman, Els’ two most reliable veterans, facing Kuchar and Fowler. Both would have to win, but despite holding a 2-up lead after 13 holes, Oosthuizen let it slip away. When Kuchar drilled his approach on 17th to five feet and knocked in for a birdie to go 1 up, the Cup was over—the Americans had won 16-14.
During the celebrations, I found Stricker standing by himself. He looked thoughtful and, as always, a little lonely, a little isolated. I asked him whether he felt more joy or relief, and his answer was both. We spoke for a few minutes as the team walked back to the clubhouse. He told me about taking notes all week for Ryder Cup purposes, but he wasn’t giving much away. In fact, I couldn’t tell if he was happy or sad, worried or ecstatic. If anything, I thought, he was already deep into his Ryder Cup captaincy, obsessed and burdened by the task that lay before him.
Among the most interested in Australia at seeing how things played out was Steve Stricker, who would be captaining the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits.
What we would find out, though it would take a year longer than expected, is that Stricker was a different kind of American captain. He was the kind who learned from everything, especially the mistakes, and Royal Melbourne had a few lessons for him. First, the importance of planning, an element that was almost entirely absent in that U.S. side. Second, the importance of using advanced statistics to form a team and assemble pairings. Els used them, Tiger didn’t, and it started the Americans out at a massive deficit.
Finally, he learned what it might mean to spend a captain’s pick on Patrick Reed. None of those lessons escaped him.
Nor was he suffering from any delusions on the big topic, and this, I guessed, was what was on Stricker’s mind that day. If the Americans prepared this way, behaved this way, and played this way in Whistling Straits, the Europeans would have their way with them.
Yet even in the aftermath of that near-disaster, there was another question to be asked. What would happen if this team, which managed to win on foreign soil by force of sheer talent and willpower, had a good leader? What if they had a great one? It was a question that hadn’t been answered in 40 years, but Stricker was about to put it to the test.
The Cup They Couldn't Lose: America, the Ryder Cup and the Long Road to Whistling Straits, Hachette Books, $29 (Hardcover)