Maybe I was a little off in proposing a few days ago that the Presidents Cup at Liberty National could be the best one ever. But while a now-overall record of 10-1-1 in favor of the U.S. might seem like a definitive statement on the event losing its relevance, the Presidents Cup is not broken.
It doesn’t need much fixing or even tweaking. There was enough of that when captain Nick Price finally got a reduction of 34 total points to 30 points, arguing that it gave the Internationals a better chance. And Price’s likely successor, Ernie Els, dropped some hints that he will be asking for some adjustments to the rules. But more concessions based on the presumption that one team isn’t quite good enough undermines the reason for having the matches.
What the Presidents Cup most needs – as much as the present moments might scream for something drastic - is the golf audience’s patience to let it evolve.
In our “what’s next” culture, 1994 – when the first Presidents Cup was played - might seem like an eternity ago, but it’s not long at all in golf years. It’s easy to forget that it took the Ryder Cup nearly 60 years before it got really competitive, or that many of the previous 11 Presidents Cup matches were hotly contested and were excellent theater.
Of course, they suffered in comparison to the revitalized Ryder Cup, which from 1989 to 1999 saw five of six matches provide incredibly dramatic finishes. The memory of such events, bolstered by another in 2013, set a standard the Presidents Cup has only approached twice.
It’s furthered the narrative that the “rest of the world” is incapable of competing with the U.S. like Europe has. But there’s a good case that South Africa and Australia have a superior post-World War II golf tradition than the countries in the Ryder Cup.
Consider that Gary Player has nine majors and indisputably is the greatest global player in history. Or that Peter Thomson won five British Opens, and Bobby Locke, perhaps the greatest putter in history, won four. Greg Norman was No. 1 in the world for 336 weeks, and Ernie Els and Jason Day got there as well. In the same time frame, the greatest European Ryder Cup players have been Nick Faldo (six majors) and Seve Ballesteros (five).
The X Factor going forward is Asia. And if South Korean domination of the LPGA is any indication, the International side is better positioned for the future than the European Ryder Cup side. Jack Nicklaus, by the way, happens to agree.
As for the events at Liberty National, well, blowouts are part of sports. Despite the buildup to this one, which included coming off the 15½-14½ nailbiter in South Korea, the amazing setting in the shadow of New York City, and the idea that the International team was due, this one was a stinker.
Sure, the International team has logistical challenges when it comes to geography and language, and perhaps some systemic adjustments in the future will help. But what I saw is what sometimes occurs in team golf even when the squads are closely matched. At Liberty National, one team got hot, while the other team – which history has put on the defensive and made more susceptible to humiliation – got dispirited, and a steamrolling ensued.
No question the Americans, clearly better on paper, played well. But while Phil Mickelson called the group the most talented team he’d ever seen, and its core of Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas are extraordinary, I thought the best description was by Tiger Woods, who called the U.S. squad “the best putting team I’ve ever seen.”
The biggest reason for the rout? For the first three days, the Internationals played bad. Even when a pair would jump out to an early lead, it would wilt when the Americans countered. Before Anirban Lahiri’s dramatic birdie on the 17th hole saved the Cup from being clinched on Saturday, it seemed as if the Internationals missed, often badly, every makeable putt at crunch time.
In the Sunday singles, more than the Americans being flat from the competition essentially decided, the pendulum swung back to the more normal level of close competition among world-class golfers that had been the original expectations for these matches.
The Internationals—with the former No. 1 Day and the current No. 3 Matsuyama, as well as major winners Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Louie Oosthuizen and 2015 Open Championship runner-up Marc Leishman—were not overmatched. Certainly no more than Europe was on paper in 1985 or 1995, two years when they upset the Americans. But whereas Europe’s best players in 1995, Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, and its worst, David Gilford and Costantino Rocca surprised, at Liberty National, both the top of the International lineup (Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama) and the bottom (Emilio Grillo and Si Woo Kim) failed to launch in the first three days.
But to Woods’ point, if there is a pattern among the International stalwarts at the moment, it’s that other than perhaps Branden Grace and Leishman, they are better ball-strikers than putters. And putting is more important in match play than it is in medal play.
Here’s the other thing that can be said about this International squad: It’s too nice. It starts with Nick Price, who in the 1980s when he was just a good player and in the 1990s when he was a great one, perennially held the title of nicest guy in golf. Today, a whole bunch of International players, including Scott, Oosthuizen, Leishman and Adam Hadwin, could contend for that title.
It looks like Els is deservedly going to take over for the next Cup at Royal Melbourne, but the Internationals, which are made up of more polite cultures than those of the Ryder Cup, could probably use a dose of Tony Jacklin- or Paul Azinger-style feistiness in their captain, or at least their assistants. Gary Player, about to turn 82, will be too old, but how about someone crusty like Steve Elkington? It spoke volumes that when Si Woo Kim surprised everyone by doing a Patrick Reed-style quieting of the American crowd after holing a birdie putt on Sunday, the collective reaction was enthusiastic approval.
The U.S. team has been through this evolution. When, after Great Britain and Ireland added continental Europe to the Ryder Cup, the American players could no longer rely on having miles more talent, they had to face the idea that what Johnny Miller calls the “lone-wolf mentality” (personified by Woods in his prime, and which Mickelson on Sunday acknowledged that he’d shared) created chemistry problems against the more unified Europeans in the Ryder Cup.
Since the Task Force focused on the issue, along with friendships among the millennial generation of American stars developing more naturally, it seems clear that the U.S. teams have been bonded more closely and, win or lose, enjoyed the week of togetherness more.
The Internationals are becoming more acutely aware that the issue needs further addressing. In the dark hour after Friday’s pasting, Price allowed that “it’s no secret that our team has a hard time bonding and coming together.” On Sunday, Els noted a pattern of slow starts followed by improved play. “We have to feel our way into it,” he said.
The problem could be addressed and potentially alleviated by the Internationals committing to play practice rounds or have dinner together at the big tournaments where they all play, notably the World Golf Championships and the majors. Maybe the younger ones can come up with their own version of the Rickie Fowler-orchestrated Spring Break.
But talent still trumps chemistry. Our John Huggan likes to point out that even as it has been winning most of the Ryder Cups, the European team was never as close as it appeared. It comes down to who has the best players, and in that case, the International team is well positioned for the future.
So don’t give up on the Presidents Cup. It just needs some time.