A U.S. Loss May Be the Best Hope for the Presidents Cup

October 6, 2015

When the Presidents Cup began in 1994 the idea was that the event would grow in stature every couple of years until it began to rival, at least a little, the Ryder Cup. Instead, the opposite has happened, with the Presidents Cup getting less and less relevant with every passing red, white and blue blowout.

The U.S. has won eight of the 10 biennial (no) contests against the International team, tied another, and lost just once, in Australia in 1998. It’s tempting, with Korea 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, to start checking your watch now to see if the Americans haven’t won already.

This year’s contest, which will begin with five foursomes matches Thursday at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in Incheon City, at least features the wrinkle of a rules change. International team captain Nick Price successfully lobbied to reduce the total number of available points from 34 to 30 in order to better hide his side’s lack of depth. (Price actually wanted a total of just 28 points, like the Ryder Cup.) Conventional wisdom holds that for the good of the event the change had better close the competitive gap.

“Some of the veterans who have played in numerous Presidents Cups, they have had a tough time in the past — certainly at Muirfield — getting motivated because it’s been a bit one-sided,” Price said. “So I think that’s changed, or with the points changed now, I think the guys are looking forward to this a lot more than any of the previous two or three.”

Friday’s play moves to five four-ball matches before Saturday’s slate of four foursomes/four four-ball tilts, and Sunday’s 12 singles matches.

“I think this is going to be an extremely close, difficult match decided by one or two points,” said U.S. captain’s pick Phil Mickelson, 45, who has played in all 10 previous Presidents Cups. “I think that with the reduction of four points, with the ability that is on the International Team, the talent level, I think that it’s going to be a very difficult, tough match. I think the first two days are going to be critical, I really do. I think the first two days, those ten points are going to set the tone for the match.”

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Chief among Price’s concerns (and U.S. captain Jay Haas’s reasons for optimism): Five Americans are ranked in the top 10 in the world, led by Player of the Year Jordan Spieth, who is coming off a statement-making victory at the Tour Championship to cap a five-win season. There’s also British Open champion Zach Johnson; long-hitting Dustin Johnson; Players and Deutsche Bank champ Rickie Fowler and the enigmatic Bubba Watson.

Jason Day, also the author of five wins in 2015, is the International side’s only top-10 player. Price can only hope the World Ranking algorithm simply hasn’t caught up to the upward trajectory of players like South Africa’s Branden Grace, who was tied for the lead at the U.S. Open before blasting his tee shot onto the train tracks on the 16th hole, and India’s long-hitting Anirban Lahiri, who contended at the PGA Championship.

Other big names for the Internationals: quiet South African Louis Oosthuizen, who came so close at the U.S. and British Opens; engaging New Zealander Danny Lee, who is of Korean ancestry and was a first-time winner on Tour in 2015; Australian Adam Scott, who will use a regulation-length putter this week; and Japanese sensation Hideki Matsuyama. (As always the most interesting strategic decision for the Internationals won’t be what type of ball to play but what language to speak during the team matches.)

The U.S. players are not only ranked higher, with all 12 men inside the top 30 — compared to just five for the Internationals — they may continue to be buoyed by their runaway success in this event and freed up by its low-key vibe. (Vicious cycle alert: The more the U.S. dominates the Prez Cup, the less the biennial exhibition commands our attention, the more it remains low key, the more the U.S. keeps dominating, and so on and so on.)

How do the Internationals break the cycle? The format change might help, allowing Price to more easily hide his weaker players. But that change will take them only so far; Day, Grace, Lahiri and the rest of them will have to prove themselves a more formidable team than what we’ve seen from the International side over the past 21 years, something along the lines of what the Americans run into with Team Europe at the Ryder Cup.

“Everyone knows we need to win,” Day said. “The last time we won was ’98, and it’s been awhile. So, you know, for us it’s kind of do-or-die for us because we had like a mini-victory this year with the points changes, so hopefully that makes it a lot more competitive.”

Winning teams are about belief and resolve. The Yanks have it at the Presidents Cup; the Euros have it at the Ryder Cup. The Internationals are still searching. Until they find it, the Presidents Cup will continue to fade further and further away from the spotlight, ever away from us, until it ultimately makes no noise at all.