The Presidents Cup: An Upset in the Making

October 7, 2015

If the Americans lose, this will be the most important Presidents Cup ever, and the conditions are ripe for that to happen. For starters, the match is being played in Songdo City, South Korea. Talk about trying to win on the road.

Yes, history suggests a U.S. win. After all, in the 11 previous meetings, the Americans have lost only once. That came in 1998, in Melbourne, a one-off that had all the staying power of last night’s pizza.

Back then, the U.S. economy still drove the world, U.S. golf was a powerhouse (Tiger! Davis! Phil!) and U.S. team golf, in the form of Ryder Cup play, had not yet become a study in futility. There was no real doubt about the ability of the Americans to put together a roster, put on uniforms and notch a win for Sam. But that was then.

The Cup will be decided on the course in South Korea, not on a spreadsheet, however. And while history records the past, it does not forecast the future.

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If the Americans lose this Presidents Cup, which begins on Wednesday night, Eastern time, on an American-style course designed by Jack Nicklaus, the hand-wringing will be epic, and Davis Love III’s job as the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup captain will become only more daunting. But a U.S. loss would be lined in silver, as it would put the Presidents Cup in the bright lights as it has never been before. Man bites dog, or a variation of it, anyhow. If the Americans lose, golf fans—nay, sports fans!—across the country will have a new team golf competition to care about, and it won’t be the Olympics. This event in South Korea can be to the Presidents Cup what the ’85 Ryder Cup was to those matches, the year everything changed. All we need is for the Americans to lose.

And they really could. To return to the road-game idea for a moment, the U.S. players (and their caddies and family members) made their own arrangements to fly to Seoul. No magic-carpet-ride team plane this time. Atlanta to Seoul, to cite one route, is 14 hours and 7,000 miles. Add another 2,500 miles if your name is Phil Mickelson and you’re 45 years old. Logistics, not cost-savings, was the motive in the independent travel, but it won’t help esprit de corps. Then there’s the case of Bubba Watson, who, behind closed doors, was expressing his lack of interest in the event. The moody supertalent needed a pep talk from his teammates to be turned around. In August, Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, forced a last-minute point change on the competition, by which the total points in play is now 30, not 34. His goal was to make the event more competitive. His move had the effect of annoying the U.S. players and their captain, Jay Haas, a man not easily annoyed. Those things do not comprise a perfect storm, but they aren’t going to help.

On the other side of the win-loss equation is the quality of the International team. It’s very good, especially at the top and through the middle. That includes, of course, Jason Day, as exciting and charismatic and playing as well as anybody in the game right now. Right alongside him are Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama and Branden Grace. You can take that fivesome anywhere. Their captain, nice guy Nick Price, is all in to win. He is the man who, paired with (he felt) a loafing Ernie Els in an early Presidents Cup, said to Easy mid-round, “This point might not mean much to you, but it means a f— of a lot to me.”

And then there’s the most significant thing about this 2015 Presidents Cup International team: It will gather with greater cohesion and with more emotion than any previous International team. You might argue that cohesion and emotion don’t translate to better individual play, but the European Ryder Cup example suggests otherwise. For years the knock on the International team is that it wasn’t really a team at all, with players from South Korean and Canada and South Africa and Argentina. And with a 12-man roster of players representing seven countries, it still is a mini-United Nations. But it is a team as never before.

That’s because of a meeting a core group of International players had with Finchem in Akron, before the Bridgestone. It was at that meeting the Internationals pressed, and pressed hard, for a point reduction. The mild-mannered Oosthuizen, of all people, was the ringleader. When asked about the point change last month, Oosthuizen said, “Had it stayed at 34 points, it would have been a massive decision as a team, but I don’t think we would have played.” He was talking about a strike as a team!

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If that is not a statement of team unity, what is? Playing for four fewer points might not sound like much, but it will provide the team with less depth (presumably the Internationals) the chance to bench some of its weaker players. The points change also gave the Internationals a victory of sorts before the first shot was played. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour dragged its feet just in giving Haas a copy of the captains’ agreement, the document that governs play. Weird.

There was a joke on Tour, after the new point system was announced: If the goal was to make the event more competitive, why not just have the Americans spot the Internationals two points per day?

That might not be necessary.