THE PRES­I­DENTS CUP IS NOT A LOST CAUSE

Golf Australia - - IN MY OPINION - 36 |

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.

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