Few serious international golf competitions have received less buildup than this week’s Presidents Cup, to be played in Montreal. Blame the PGA Tour, which spent millions hyping the FedEx Cup all year at the expense of everything after the Tour Championship. You saw FedEx Cup commercials for nine months with Tiger Woods whistling while he worked, Ernie Els banging his head against a locker, Jerome Bettis eating off Jim Furyk’s plate and caddies trundling along baggage carousels, to name a few. Presidents Cup commercials? Nah. Not one.
And now comes the Presidents Cup. Gentlemen, start your engines … if you can.
This event may be decided by stamina and won by the team that is able to play at peak levels after the grind of six significant events in seven weeks (the Bridgestone, the PGA Championship and the four FedEx Cup playoff events). In past years, the season was over for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson the minute the last putt dropped at the PGA Championship in August. The FedEx Cup changed that. How will they perform in Montreal, just two weeks after the Tour Championship?
Let’s get to it. I’m picking the United States to retain the Cup. It’s funny, as of mid-August this seemed like a slam dunk for the International team, which seemed better, deeper and hotter than the Americans. Then Tiger regained his ’01 form and won the PGA at Southern Hills, Phil re-entered the building in Boston and Steve Stricker traveled back in time a decade. Meanwhile, some of the International team’s big guns have been living on reputation instead of results. I was all set to pick the International team until I sat down for some intense, in-depth research. Two minutes later, I could only conclude that the Americans have the edge, despite the absence of Chris DiMarco. They’re not better, but they are slightly more lukewarm.
Actually, the Americans rate an edge because of their putting. Besides Woods, they have Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker, Scott Verplank, Jim Furyk and Mickelson — all stars with the short stick. The International team’s only truly terrific putters are Ernie Els, Mike Weir and Geoff Ogilvy. The others are spotty at best (Rory Sabbatini and K.J. Choi) and not so good at worst (Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera). Putting is so important in match play that this may be the deciding factor.
Here are the rest of my Presidents Cup thoughts, predictions, observations and fantasies. And please, no wagering.
On the greens: The Stone Cold Steve Austin Division Good news for the U.S. The International team has more struggling players than the Americans. Vijay Singh: Did anybody see him playing in the FedEx Cup? No. Not a factor. He has battled injuries and swing changes and hasn’t looked like the Vijay of old, just an old Vijay. He could get it back in one good hour on the range, however. … Retief Goosen, where have you gone? That Pinehurst meltdown in 2005 wasn’t really a career-ender, was it? … Trevor Immelman isn’t among the top 185 in putting statistics. Make him putt everything out, fellas. … Nick O’Hern hasn’t finished better than 35th in the U.S. since June. … Stuart Appleby has had one top-10 finish and six missed cuts since the Masters. Last week against a weak field at Turning Stone, he barely cracked the top 20. … Angel Cabrera is 23 over par since his Open win, has missed two cuts and has finished no better than 23rd. … Canadian hero Mike Weir hasn’t been inside the top 25 since the British Open, and here’s a scary stat — he ranks 163rd in greens hit in regulation. For you bowling fans, that’s not good. That’s seven players who are decidedly not hot. The chilly Americans are Charles Howell III, who was 100 over par from the Masters through the Barclays and had only one top-20 finish, 18th at the Barclays; and David Toms, who has had back problems and didn’t make the cut to play in the Tour Championship. Big edge, U.S.
Notably absent For the internationals, Aaron Baddeley, Tim Clark, Andres Romero and Robert Allenby. How do you pass up Badds? For the Americans, two-time winner Steve Flesch and, of course, the Sony Open champ, Paul Goydos. (Hey, the writers need good quotes.)
What to watch for Weir should play every day. He has to in order to get the Canadian crowd behind the team.
Strategy move Tiger plays his best when he’s focused, or ticked off. He hasn’t make a big deal about the silly comments from Rory Sabbatini, but he hears them. So if I’m the captain, I try to get Tiger and his partner into every match against Sabbatini and his partner, and I have Tiger play Rory in singles. I like Tiger’s chances to go 5-0. Sorry about that, Rory.
Top six singles matches I’d like to see
1. Tiger Woods vs. Rory Sabbatini: The mouth of the south against the king of the hill.
2. Tiger Woods vs. Nick O’Hern: Let’s see if this Aussie really is made of kryptonite.
3. Phil Mickelson vs. Mike Weir: The most popular golfer in the game (sorry Tiger) against the most popular man in Canada.
4. Zach Johnson vs. Angel Cabrera: The Masters champ against the U.S. Open champ.
5. Steve Stricker vs. K.J. Choi: A rematch of their back-nine duel at Westchester in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
6. Stewart Cink vs. Stuart Appleby: No reason, really, except fans would be able to yell “C’mon, Stuey!” without upsetting anyone.
Most likely guest appearance (not counting the former President Bush, who’s sure to show up since he still hasn’t found a job) Potential future First Spouse Bill Clinton, hoping to bump into Canadian babe Shania Twain.
Second most likely guest appearance: Wayne Gretzky All those great hockey players are hooked on golf.
The MVA (Most Valuable Architect) Rees Jones, known as the Open Doctor, has also made Royal Montreal one of his Rees’s pieces. His changes to Dick Wilson’s design? He turned the par-3 12th into a downhill par 5 and the par-5 13th into a par 3. In designer lingo, that’s called wife-swapping.
Best place to have the next U.S.-based Presidents Cup Castle Pines, the former host of the International tournament. Its collection of dangerous par 4s and reachable par 5s would be the perfect stage for match play.
Captain’s log Captain Jack Nicklaus and his let’s-have-fun style could help relax the Americans, who normally pucker up in the Ryder Cup. Captain Gary Player brings a nonstop flow of positive energy that is nothing short of inspiring. Edge: Tossup
Biggest surprises Stricker has played too well for too long to be considered a Cinderella or even a surprise, but look for him to have a big week. He drives it in play and is a great scrambler, the kind of guy you hate to face in match play. Ditto for Scott Verplank, who won the 2001 Canadian Open at Royal Montreal… The International team’s surprise stars will be Weir, who will rise to the occasion, and K.J. Choi, who is probably the top gun for his team. Choi is a surprise only because of the language barrier that keeps the public from learning too much about him. If golf had another Big Five (and it doesn’t), he’d be in it.
Sing, sing, Singh Players from seven countries will be competing (Australia, Canada, Fiji, South Africa, South Korea, Argentina and the United States). The best national anthem you’ll hear at the opening ceremonies belongs to Canada. Give yourself double bonus points if you recognize Argentina’s anthem. If you don’t, well, don’t cry for me.