Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 20, 2011

Contrived And Commercial, The Presidents Cup Rolls On

Maybe it was the sixteen hour time difference. It left fans in the U.S. the choice of watching live action on the Golf Channel at times that were out of the ordinary for viewing golf, or tuning into NBC at more normal hours to watch a taped broadcast with the results already known. Certainly the fact the U.S. team won the very first match and never looked back played a role. The Americans drained the event of drama and left the Australian crowd mostly sitting on its hands by leading 4-2 after Thursday, 7-5 after Friday, and 13-9 after Saturday in route to their 19-15 victory. But mostly the recently concluded Presidents Cup was forgettable because the matches are really just a contrivance; an event manufactured by the PGA Tour that this year seemed especially commercial. Golf fans wouldn’t mourn for long if the event just went away; sometimes less really is more.

That of course is a concept that is generally lost on the powers that be in major sports, and the PGA Tour is no exception. Seeing the growing popularity and commercial success of the biennial Ryder Cup matches, especially after they became much more competitive when the team from Great Britain and Ireland was expanded to include all of Europe, Tour officials no doubt chafed at the fact that none of that success was fattening their coffers. The Ryder Cup, jointly sponsored by the PGA of America and the European Tour, is not a PGA Tour event. So in 1994 the Tour found a solution to a problem that didn’t really exist by creating the Presidents Cup matches, a Ryder Cup lookalike between a team from the United States and one made up of players from the rest of the world except Europe.

This year’s competition over a composite course combining holes from the two 18’s at historic Royal Melbourne Golf Club was the ninth edition of the Presidents Cup. The International team has won exactly once, in 1998 when the matches were held on this same layout. The U.S. retained the Cup when the two teams finished in a tie in 2003, and has won outright the other seven times. In those seven clear-cut victories the U.S. team has won by an average of more than five points, meaning the matches have not exactly been nailbiters. In that regard this year’s event was at least consistent. By the time the Sunday singles matches started an International victory would have required a final day comeback as great as has ever been recorded in either Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup play. Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen.

At the Ryder Cup, both teams have a distinct identity. The twelve American golfers play together week in and week out on the PGA Tour, and are obviously proud to represent their country. Most of the twelve Europeans also play at least part-time on the PGA Tour; but all twelve play the European Tour as well, and are used to seeing and competing against each other at that tour’s far-flung events. While the European Union obviously isn’t a country with a single flag, it is a real entity with which both players and fans can identify.

On the other hand, there is no “international” to which the players on the Presidents Cup International squad can relate. As befits a team that is supposed to represent the rest of the world outside the U.S. and Europe, they come from all over. But that very diversity makes meshing as a team all the more difficult. The twelve golfers playing for Captain Greg Norman this year included five Australians, three South Africans, three South Koreans and one Japanese. More important than their national diversity was the fact that unlike the European team at the Ryder Cup and the U.S. team at either event these were not twelve golfers who regularly compete against one another. Kyung-tae Kim plays almost exclusively on the Asian and Japan Tours; and Ryo Ishikawa, while bound for the PGA Tour where he could well be a future star, has so far played most of his golf on the Japan Tour. Expecting a group of golfers some of whom have never played together to cohere as a team under a non-existent flag is folly, as the Presidents Cup results have usually shown.

But as was glaringly obvious at this year’s matches, it’s really not about the competition at all. Who cares who wins or by how much as long as networks pay for broadcast rights and corporate sponsors shell out for the opportunity to plaster their logos on the grandstands? The real priorities for this event became clear early on, when U.S. Captain Fred Couples preemptively named Tiger Woods as one of his two captain’s picks for the American team. Woods may not have won a tournament in more than two years and he may have fallen as low as 58th in the official world golf rankings in the weeks leading up to the Presidents Cup, but he remains a huge draw for both television ratings and ticket sales.

So what if in picking Woods Couples passed over the likes of Brandt Snedeker, who just missed qualifying for the team by finishing 11th in the points standings for the Presidents Cup team and who won this year at Hilton Head; or Keegan Bradley, the PGA Championship victor? So what if Woods played like someone ranked 58th, finishing with a middling 2-3 record that included an ugly 7&6 rout of Woods and partner Steve Stricker by Adam Scott and K. J. Choi in Thursday’s foursomes, the only American loss on Thursday? The ratings for the Golf Channel’s coverage of that opening day were the highest in Presidents Cup history. Of course, many of those who tuned in probably did so just to see if there would be fisticuffs on the first tee between Woods and former caddie Stevie Williams, who now carries Scott’s bag. Alas, golf remains a genteel game, and the two merely exchanged a polite handshake.

It wasn’t just the U.S. side that appeared more concerned about commercial than on-course success. With three Australians already making the International team based on their world golf ranking, Captain Norman used both of his captain’s picks to add two more of his fellow countrymen to the squad. In doing so he snubbed 2010 Open Championship winner Louis Oosthuizen, veteran Vijay Singh, and Colombian star Camilo Villegas, among others. Officially he picked Aaron Baddeley and Robert Allenby because of their familiarity with the Royal Melbourne layout. Of course, having almost half of the International team be Australians couldn’t have been bad for ticket sales, now could it? As for the official reasoning, well the five Australians posted a record of 7-14-3, and Allenby was the only player on either team to leave Royal Melbourne without earning a single point.

Of course, as contrived and commercial as they may be, the Presidents Cup matches will go on. The next installment will be at Muirfield Village in 2013, and an as yet undetermined site in South Korea will host the 2015 matches. The Presidents Cup may not offer compelling play or much in the way of close competition, but as long as the networks and the sponsors keep writing checks, the PGA Tour will happily give fans more of the same.

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