THE PRESIDENTS CUP IS NOT A LOST CAUSE
IN THE wake of the recent Presidents Cup, I’ve heard all kinds of comments and conjecture regarding the future of the event. Everyone seems to have an opinion after watching America’s convincing 19-11 victory over the International squad. But here’s the thing. To me at least, too many people are overly concerned with the small things. Team spirit. The pairings. The balls players use. All that kind of stuff.
Here’s the reality. For the last hundred years or so, when it came to picking a group of golfers to take on anyone else, the United States were better. Which is why, for a long time, they won the Ryder Cup without really having to try too hard. They never had to learn the nuances of team golf because they were so superior to the Great Britain & Ireland sides. It was like a Porsche racing a Volkswagen. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Then along came Tony Jacklin and Seve Ballesteros. With help from a few others, those guys figured out that, because they couldn’t win, they had to improve how they did things. That was a must. Even though they had some top-quality players like Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, the European sides of the 1980s were still not as “deep” as the US sides.
So they had to work it out. And they did. Over time, Europe became the masters of team competitions. They figured out how to pair Spaniards with Germans, Frenchmen with Danes and Irishmen with Swedes. They even got Englishmen to co-exist with Scots (no easy task). None of that was straightforward, but they did it.
Unfortunately for the International team in the Presidents Cup, all of the above forced the Americans to get better at team golf too. And when a side is deeper to begin with, then does the “team thing” as well as their opponents, the team with the most talent is going to win. It’s that complicated and that simple. Generally speaking at least.
We – the Internationals – have been getting better too. But our doing that has coincided with the era in which the Americans have learned how to do this thing. In a roundabout way, the success of the Europeans in the Ryder Cup has had an adverse effect on the International prospects in the Presidents Cup. That’s how I see it anyway.
The good news is that the next stage in this on-going process is the Internationals becoming just as good as the Americans. They will force us to do so. And when we get there
it will be harder for the US to beat us. So they will work harder. That will then make it more difficult for the Europeans to beat them. And vice versa. Everyone will improve, which can only be good for golf in general.
I really believe – despite what some have been saying – that the Presidents Cup has a great future. The pieces of the International puzzle are good enough to produce a winning side. They are certainly as good as the European pieces and they haven’t done too badly recently.
How we actually get better still has to be worked out. But one thing is for sure – our cause is becoming more common to all concerned. I saw that from my position inside the ropes as assistant captain to International skipper Nick Price at Liberty National. Even as we were being so convincingly annihilated, every member of our team was thinking the same thing: “there is no way this is happening again.” That was the attitude of every single one of us. There was a proper, “this sucks” air about it all.
That’s why I think the International sides of the next few years – albeit weaker on paper – will have a great chance to win the Presidents Cup. That has been the case at the Ryder Cup. Every two years the American side looks better on paper, yet all too often most observers still think the Europeans are going to beat them. There is no reason why the Internationals cannot provoke the same sort of feeling.
I don’t have all the answers as to how we get to that stage. But the Presidents Cup is essentially the same as the Ryder Cup. We are playing the same game. We face the same challenges as the Europeans. We just have to work it out.
Yes, a reduction in the number of points could only help us. Playing for 30 points instead of 34 has improved our chances – even if that wasn’t too evident this year. Fewer points also brings more skill into the captaincy. Who do
you rest? Who do you play? Does a guy sit out one day, then play 36-holes the next? Is an individual better in foursomes or four-balls? There are endless questions, not least the danger that playing guys in every series of matches can tire them out. Look at this year. Five Americans played all five matches and not one of them won his singles match on the final day.
Don’t get me wrong though. Fewer points and matches is not about making it easier for us to win. It’s more about creating a scenario where the overall contest is going to be close. That was the biggest disappointment this year. None of us got to feel what it is like when the eventual result comes down to the last few games. In fact, only four or five matches out of the 30 came close to producing that really cool feeling over the last few holes. You know what I mean. The “what’s going to happen here” vibe with all the other team members gathered round the final green. Many times over the last few years I have envied the Ryder Cup players as I watched them doing just that.
Come to think of it, the same was true of the early Presidents Cups. None of them resulted in a pumping for the International squad. They were close. Twice Fred Couples produced an heroic shot to win the trophy for the Americans. In 1998, the Internationals won easily. And there was the famous tie in 2003. But all of that was before Paul Azinger came along to transform the US side in the 2008 Ryder Cup. It was before the Task Force that has made them better still. It was before the bigger and better approach the Americans now have to team golf.
As all that has gone on, the International side has been losing – sometimes heavily – more often. Which only underlines why we have to improve if we are to keep up. We have to raise the bar. And when we do the matches will be better to play in and to watch.
Which is not to say the Presidents Cup is not a great product already. Look at this year. Thirty golfers had fun at Liberty National. So did the captains and their assistants. Big crowds showed up to watch. A lot more watched on television. Millions of dollars were raised for charity. Four US presidents showed up. That’s a pretty special event. Not many tournaments during any year create that much buzz. So even if it is a blow-out, it’s still way better than good.
To sum up, the International squad needs to arrive at the same formula that has allowed the Europeans to produce their best golf at nearly every Ryder Cup. That’s what it is about. And to do that a few things have to be addressed. For example, some of our players have limited match play experience. My fellow assistant captain, Ernie Els – who is more than likely going to be captain at Royal Melbourne in 2019 – and I were astonished by some of the basic errors being made by both sides this year.
For me at least, match play is about building pressure on the other player. You have to make yourself difficult to beat by showing more than you actually have on the day. And the best way to do that is to let your opponent see your ball all the time. Make him feel like he has to do everything really well to beat you. Make him think you are simply not going to go away.
Way too often I watched both partners drive into the same fairway bunker. I also saw a player drive out-of-bounds when he should have been hitting a 3-iron up the fairway so that his partner could then be more aggressive. Little things that add up to the creation of unnecessary pressure. On the other hand, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have four-ball play down. They never look like they are going to make a bogey. So their opponents stand on the tee thinking they have to make a birdie and knowing that, if they make a bogey, they are going to lose the hole. That’s added pressure. And that’s good match play. It’s not about being better or worse; it’s about making everything difficult for your opponent. Two years from now, our aim must be to do just that.
WE HAVE TO RAISE THE BAR. AND WHEN WE DO THE MATCHES WILL BE BETTER TO PLAY IN AND TO WATCH.
Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have become a formidable fourball combination.