If you care about the Presidents Cup, you should be rooting for America to lose in South Korea. Or—if that’s too jarring—at least for the International team to win. In basic terms, it’s the outcome the event most needs. Yes, if the Internationals—who are 1-8-1 since the Presidents Cup began in 1994—were to pull off an upset, the U.S. players would get blasted, having lost the past three Ryder Cups. But there wouldn’t be a call for a task force. They could take the hit.
For one thing, it’s becoming more clear from all sorts of international matches that one week of match play at the top levels of the game doesn’t really decide anything or define anyone beyond that event.
For another, the blow would be healthy. The patriotic furor created would increase the pressure and expectations on the United States. That’s what happened to the Ryder Cup in the 1980s. That’s how these team events are fueled. The Presidents Cup would stop being a biennial placeholder for the next Ryder Cup. Most importantly, the International team would get the psychological boost it desperately needs. Nick Price hinted that the real reason he so adamantly sought a change in the scoring system was a lack of enthusiasm for the event he was beginning to perceive in his beaten down players, a harsh reality that was eloquently conveyed by his assistant captain, Tony Johnstone, to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
“Tony said the Presidents Cup should be a pinnacle, and that’s not the case,” Price told our Tim Rosaforte. “That’s not the burning ambition. Every international player should strive to be on the Presidents Cup team. But this is not something they look forward to.”
Finchem granted Price a reduction in the number of matches (and corresponding total points available) from 34 to 30. Price actually wanted 28 total points, just like the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup, arguing that fewer matches allow the team with less depth to use its weaker players less and ultimately be more competitive. But at least he was able to go back to his players with a win where they have experienced so few, while publicly stating his main concern was for the event as a whole.
“I think win, lose or draw, we all want to see it come down to the final match on Sunday instead of being done with eight matches left on the golf course on Sunday,” Price said. “That’s a big deal.”
Close would be OK. But a win would be a possible momentum changer. The question is, does this International team have it in them to do it?
What can the International team do? Foremost is care. A lot. Come in intense. Foster an atmosphere that might at least begin to get the American’s tight.
Only a few things are in its favor. The Presidents Cup is being played for the first time in Asia, golf’s biggest emerging market. There are five Asian-born players on the team (the most ever), all of whom will be motivated to a victory they know would inspire more Asian kids to take up the game.
Incheon, just south of Seoul, despite its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, will likely be foreign and cold and possibly even disorienting for the Americans. Perhaps when they get there, they will be as put off by the place as the 1998 U.S. team was by Australia, where they got trounced 20½ to 11½. Or maybe, based on the recent past, they’ll come in overconfident and complacent.
But South Korea will be just as foreign to a lot of the internationals, a group for which good chemistry is not a given. This year the team will include six native languages. And unlike the European team in the Ryder Cup, they don’t have the incentive—which Price believes has been underrated fuel—of playing for the credibility of their home tour, the European Tour. Nine members on the International team are members of the PGA Tour.
Historically, the team doesn’t gather in one room at the same time until the Monday of the Presidents Cup. Essentially still getting to know each other as the matches begin. It’s perhaps no accident that in the history of the matches, the Internationals have been ahead after the first session only twice—in 1998 and 2003—and have trailed 5-0 in 1994 and 2000, 4½ to ½ in 2007, and 4 to 1 in 1996.
The United States has won the past five matches, all of them by at least three points, and on paper, another blowout seems possible. All 12 of the U.S. players are among the top 30 in the world, and only five of the Internationals are: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen, and Branden Grace.
Meanwhile, only No. 2 Day is among the world top 10, and the Americans have five: Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson.
Day, who has won four of his past seven tournaments, seems to be the only International (besides Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand, who last month won the Porsche European Open) who has been playing well. Still, Day, the 28- year old PGA champion, was lukewarm about the new point system providing his team a boost. “Hopefully, it makes it a bit more competitive instead of just going to be a blowout like it has been.”
Meanwhile the Americans are collectively on a good run, a young team led by world No. 1 Jordan Spieth. They won’t have Tiger Woods, and they got Phil Mickelson, 45, mostly because U.S. captain Jay Haas was persuaded that Lefty would be a leader.
Last week they lost Jim Furyk, also 45, to a wrist injury that had caused him to withdraw from the Tour Championship. But when the No. 9 player in the world was replaced by J.B. Holmes, a Presidents Cup rookie ranked 18th, Furyk, who has a 20-10-3 record in the Presidents Cup (versus 10-20-4 in the Ryder Cup), reasonably said: “We just became a longer, more powerful team.”
Whatever the perceived advantages for the Americans, the years of much ballyhooed team matches have taught us that they are unpredictable. The biggest factor is momentum.
In the Presidents Cup, the United States has owned it. The event is a welcome respite from the Ryder Cup, where the pressure is ratcheted up to 11. In the comparative free ride that is the Presidents Cup, the Americans play with a looseness they wish they could achieve in the Ryder Cup.
Haas’ job is to restore that feeling and keep it going strong. “Winning never gets old,” he says,“so I don’t think there would be any challenge to get them up for the matches.”
What can the International team do? Foremost is care. A lot. Come in intense. Foster an atmosphere that might at least begin to get the American’s tight. It’s what Seve Ballesteros did for the European Ryder Cup teams throughout the ’80s. And though he’s considered one of golf’s gentlemen, captain Price possesses a similar gear.
He showed it at the 2003 Presidents Cup that ended in an epic tie. After missing a 10-footer on the 18th hole of his singles match to lose 1 up to Kenny Perry, Price instantaneously snapped his putter over his knee, although he recovered seamlessly by tucking both halves of the club under his arm and warmly shaking hands with Perry. It will take that kind of will and emotion— from its leader, but most of all its players—to defeat the Americans in South Korea. If it somehow happens, who knows? Perhaps the Presidents Cup gets its turning point.