The Internationals Face Another Uphill Battle in 2015 Presidents Cup

August 21, 2015

This is supposed to be the year the International side injects some parity back into the Presidents Cup.

The Presidents Cup? The team match-play event that isn’t the Ryder Cup and features the U.S. against a potpourri of International players who aren’t from Europe, remember?

Right. It’s coming up in about six weeks, Oct. 8-11. This one is big because it’s a home game for the Internationals, in theory. It’ll be played in South Korea, although no Korean players are currently qualified to make the lineup.

The Internationals need to win this one and frankly, the outlook isn’t any better this time than in the previous 11 Presidents Cups. The United States holds a 9-1-1 edge, and the Internationals are so obviously undermanned that captain Nick Price has lobbied for fewer matches in order to level the playing field.

All 12 players on each team play the first two days, then ten players compete in the team matches the third day. In the Ryder Cup, only eight players compete in each session, so the Presidents Cup has six more matches and six more points up for grabs — there are 34 total points in the Presidents Cup to just 28 in the Ryder Cup.

The theory is that the Internationals have less depth than the Americans and this more-is-better format exposes that weakness.

It seems unlikely that the format is going to be altered at the 11th hour, although there is precedent for breaking the event’s rules. The famous playoff in South Africa between Ernie Els and Tiger Woods, playing to break a tie, ended when captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player called PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem on the phone and they agreed to call the Presidents Cup a draw even though the event’s rules stated it could not end in a tie. It was a victory for sportsmanship even if it smacked of making up the rules as you went along.

The 2015 edition of the PC, as insiders call it, doesn’t look any better on paper. The Americans have eight players inside the top 15 in the world ranking among the ten players who are currently qualified to make the team on points. (Each team gets two captain’s choices later.) The Internationals have just three.

The lowest ranked American, currently Chris Kirk, is 25th. Five of the International members rank outside the top 30. The lowest ranked is Danny Lee at 54th.

You can argue that the numbers aren’t that important, that after the top six or eight, the difference in the rankings is minute. Yes, some numbers lie, but here’s one that doesn’t: the U.S. has won 9 of 11 Presidents Cups. It’s not just a one-sided result, it’s that a lot of the matches have not been close. In 2013, the Americans won by a healthy three points.

It gets worse for the Internationals. Its top stars, other than PGA champ Jason Day, don’t seem to be in great form. How they’re playing now may not be how they’re playing in six weeks, but consider these causes for concern:

Australia’s Adam Scott finished a dismal 45th in the limited-field Bridgestone Invitational, then missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, after excellent performances in the U.S. and British Opens, finished 42nd at Bridgestone and 30th at the PGA.

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama placed 37th in those last two events.

Day, of course, is on a roll, but his play is negated by Jordan Spieth, the No. 1 player in the world.

In short, it looks like another serious uphill battle for the undermanned Internationals.

There have been some star-studded International teams that have gotten shellacked. One theory says that because of their international makeup and the language barriers that it’s harder for them to gel as a team. Maybe.

Another says that they’re weak at the bottom of the lineup. Perhaps.

A third says that the Americans have more experience in this format since they play the Ryder Cup every other year. If that were true, shouldn’t the Americans be doing better in the Ryder Cup, then, with that Presidents Cup experience in the off-years?

I’ll take it one more step. Yes, the bottom of the lineup might be slightly weaker, but I don’t see the difference as being that great to explain the past big losses. It’s simpler than that.

Any team match-play event, including the Ryder Cup, is more of a putting contest. Match play is about getting the ball in the hole. The Europeans have dominated the U.S. because they have regularly out-putted them, for whatever reason. There is no explaining why Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, pretty average putters, turned into Ben Freaking Crenshaw every two years, but they did.

The putting stats for this year’s prospective Presidents Cup teams, however, show an even bigger disparity than the world rankings.

The Americans have five players ranked among the top 40 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. Jimmy Walker is No. 1, followed by Jordan Spieth, 5; Patrick Reed, 13; Matt Kuchar, 27; and Bubba Watson, 37. The Internationals have just three: Brendan Grace, 8; Jason Day, 9; and Danny Lee, 26th. (Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee hasn’t played enough rounds to qualify for the Tour’s stat rankings, so we’re not including him in this discussion.)

A bigger concern is that the Internationals have a lot of poorly ranked putters. Five of the nine players (Jaidee is out) rank outside the top 100. Hideki Matsuyama ranks 102; Charl Schwartzel, 116; Anirban Lahiri, 138; Louis Oosthuizen, 149; and Adam Scott, 172.

The only Americans outside the top 100, curiously, are Jim Furyk, 128, who still putts pretty well, and British Open champ Zach Johnson, 133, who has always been considered among the best putters on Tour.

Right now, the International lineup looks like The Gang That Couldn’t Putt Straight. No matter who the captain’s choices are, that probably isn’t going to change much. International captain Nick Price will almost certainly pick at least one of the South Koreans, Ben An or Danny Lee, or maybe both. Others to consider include Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones of Australia and Ernie Els of South Africa.

U.S. captain Jay Haas has a similar dilemma in that no one outside the current top ten has really made much of a case to be picked. He will have to look at his son, Bill Haas, Robert Streb, Charley Hoffman, J.B. Holmes, Billy Horschel or Brandt Snedeker. Phil Mickelson, who ranks 33rd on the points list, would be a longshot.

No matter who gets picked, the Americans are once again going to be heavily favored.

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