Presidents Cup Thoughts: What I learned from the U.S. win at Royal Melbourne

Monday November 21st, 2011
Jim Furyk beat Ernie Els in singles to cap a 5-0 week.
Andrew Brownbill/AP

The 19-15 final score sounds like it wasn’t close, but it actually was for a while on Sunday during the Internationals’ furious charge. Think about it: Flip the results of any two matches all week and it’s 17-17. It was closer than you think. Even American captain Fred Couples admitted to being extremely nervous when the Internationals were dominating early on Sunday.
The Star Player of the Week was Jim Furyk, an unlikely prospect. He struggled with his putting all year and gamely sneaked into the 10th and final automatic qualifying spot mostly by virtue of his spectacular 2010 season. Then he put it together while paired with Phil Mickelson and eventually finished 5-0. He’s just a guy you never, ever want to face in singles. It was nice to see him get back on track.
With greens stimping at 14  and winds gusting, Royal Melbourne Golf Club is a handful for the world’s best players. I don’t think a stroke-play event would have ever finished in Friday’s rainy, blustery conditions. Yes, RMGC is one of the world’s best courses, but the setup and some of those semi-unplayable pin positions crossed the line into goofy golf -- even if they made for great television.
It makes me wonder if International captain Greg Norman outsmarted himself by setting up the course to be so difficult. Local knowledge of certain pins was useless if none of the players could actually get a ball to stop where they intended. Certainly on Friday, and possibly on Thursday, the golf course was so difficult that few birdies were made. I don’t think that worked in the Internationals’ favor.
Royal Melbourne forced the world’s best players to hit some shots that made you stand in awe. Oddly, it also  didn’t fill me with desire to play there. It looks like a long, not-very-fun afternoon. Hitting putts that race past the cup and off the green doesn’t excite me, although it does remind me of miniature golf.
World, meet K.T. Kim. Kim, meet World. It looks as if Korea has found the world-class successor to K.J. Choi. His reputation as a match-play assassin, which led to Norman batting him leadoff in singles, seemed deserved as he took down Webb Simpson. This guy is good.
Team match play, reduced to its most basic molecule, is about putting. It’s really that simple. A poor putter like Robert Allenby really had no place on this team. Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have been fighting their putters, too, although it looked like Goosen had a slightly better handle on his belly putter—he’s gripping it almost halfway down the shaft. Jason Day also seemed baffled for much of the event. For the Americans, Dustin Johnson was the only player who couldn’t find the hole with a neon arrow, and by Sunday he had pretty much lost his stroke and his confidence. The Internationals got outputted.
The TV talking heads decided that the Internationals’ inability to play in the foursomes format (alternate shot) was what killed their chances. The stats show they’re right.  The Americans were 8-3 in foursomes play, 11-12 in everything else. Why did the Internationals struggle there? Lack of camaraderie? Lack of foursomes practice? The language barrier? Nah. Bad putting. See previous paragraph.
Fred Couples has always been seen as the ultimate cool guy, but he looked suspiciously dorky when he did the pretend body-punching routine to Tiger Woods after his Cup-clinching win. (It reminded me of Ted’s lame pal, Punchy, in an episode of How I Met Your Mother.) Fred’s seemingly hands-off approach to captaining gets results, though. You can’t argue with that. His players love him.
I can’t think of any reason Fred shouldn’t captain the U.S. team again in two years. Why not? He’s having a blast. So is his team.
Greg Norman was just one of the guys early in his career and was known to hang out and have a beer or two with the boys. As he became a media superstar and global corporation who arrived at tournaments by helicopter, he lost that familiarity with the other players. He did the best he could with what he had, although his pick of Allenby was a failure. Captains can’t hit the shots for the players.
Norman said he’d like to see the International captain get four wild-card picks instead of two, a change that Paul Azinger championed for American’s Ryder Cup selection system. Two more picks doesn’t solve Norman’s depth problem, however. He needs fewer matches, like the Ryder Cup, so he can sit out his weak links. Only eight players compete in each Ryder Cup session. All 12 play the first two rounds in the Presidents Cup, then 10 of 12 play on Saturday. There’s no place to hide a guy who’s off his game. Two killer pairings can carry the whole team in a Ryder Cup, but not in the Presidents Cup.
Give credit to the Internationals. They were four points down going into singles and won the first four matches. Pretty impressive. While Tiger gets credit for scoring the clinching point, the unsung hero for the Americans was Nick Watney. He turned around his match against K.J. Choi to win a crucial point that blunted the charge. If Watney lost that match, we might have seen a Miracle at Melbourne after all.
The Internationals is a cumbersome team name. How about we call them the I-Nats from now on? (Sounds like another Apple product.) Any other suggestions?
If there’s such a thing as too much golf on TV, Saturday was it. First, Golf Channel came on showing the foursomes groups teeing off on the opening hole. Later in the day, NBC picked it up. On a 12-hour day of golf, less might’ve been more.
The goat of the week wasn’t necessarily Robert Allenby, who went 0-4. He was a bit of a reach as a captain’s choice in the first place. There’s a reason he hasn’t won in years—his ballstriking is still excellent, but his putting isn’t. I think the goat horns have to be split between two guys who are supposed to be stars: Jason Day and Dustin Johnson. Day doesn’t seem to know what a knockdown shot is, even in 30 mile-per-hour winds, and he struggled from the rough. He looked ragged around the greens, too. The same goes for Johnson, who seemed bamboozled by the greens and started to flinch-block some putts. His wedge play bordered on embarrassing. That said, Royal Melbourne’s green complexes embarrassed a lot of players. But it was hard to watch Johnson at RMGC and picture him ever handling the similarly treacherous greens at Augusta National.
Maybe it was the wind, maybe it was a lack of microphones, but the atmosphere at Royal Melbourne didn’t seem as electric as a Ryder Cup. You could hear some fans occasionally singing and cheering, but if it was deafening—and maybe it was—it didn’t come across on TV. It was nothing like, say, the fans in Kentucky when the Ryder Cup was at Valhalla.
The Presidents Cup is fun. The team match-play thing is golf’s most entertaining format. I like it. I can’t help but think how much better it would be, however, if it were the qualifier for the Ryder Cup—that is, the winning Presidents Cup team would advance to play the Ryder Cup against the defending Ryder Cup champs. It would take the Ryder Cup global, greatly increasing interest and profits, and ratchet up the intensity for the Presidents Cup. The drawback, of course, would be that the U.S. could theoretically go years without playing in a Ryder Cup. Also, the PGA of America and the PGA Tour would have to agree to share the control and the money. Iran will get an NBA franchise before that happens.

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