Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 15, 2019

A Predictable Result At An Unneeded Event

Team USA won the Presidents Cup this weekend. Given the relative talent on the American and International teams, that was the expected result from the four days of matches played at Royal Melbourne Golf Club on Australia’s south coast. But aside from Patrick Reed’s determined efforts to give arrogance physical form, there’s not much else for the golf media to report on in mid-December. So, between the need to fill that void and the added attention that comes with the U.S. squad being captained by Tiger Woods, Team USA’s 16-14 victory over the nominal hosts is being treated, in the golf world at least, as big news.

That the Presidents Cup, be it this edition or virtually all the previous twelve biennial stagings, doesn’t really deserve such treatment is evident for several reasons. First is the very reason for its existence. In the mid-90s there were no golfers clamoring for one more event on an already full schedule. But executives at the PGA Tour looked longingly at the publicity and revenue generated every other year by the Ryder Cup matches between the United States and Europe.

The stateside management of that exhibition is in the hands of the PGA of America, the national organization of teaching professionals which also sponsors the PGA Championship. Those matches had become highly competitive beginning in the 1980s, after the opposition for Team USA was expanded from just golfers representing Great Britain and Ireland to include all of the Continent. With that came a vastly higher public profile to matches that had been going on since 1927, mostly as a rather sedate and gentlemanly contest dominated by the U.S. Increased media attention in turn brought bigger television contracts, more sponsors clamoring for a role in the weekend’s proceedings, and, inevitably, lots and lots of cash. Anxious for a golden goose to call their own, the Tour’s leadership inserted the Presidents Cup into the golfing calendar for the years between Ryder Cup stagings, replacing Team Europe with an International squad that would be open to golfers from all non-European nations. It was, in short, a money grab; why let all those sponsorship and TV dollars sit idle every other year when they could be flowing into the PGA Tour’s bank account in Ponte Vedra?

What the Tour did not consider in its haste to cash in was that Ryder Cup history referenced above. Of the first twenty-five editions of the Ryder Cup, only three ended in defeat for Team USA. The event simply wasn’t competitive, because the depth of talent among American touring pros was far, far greater than among their counterparts from the British Isles. The spike in interest in the matches was directly tied to the decision to include golfers from mainland Europe, which was made at a time when players like Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal were coming into their prime and winning tournaments no matter where they teed it up. They in turn sparked interest in the game for succeeding generations, which has meant a steady flow of top-level Continental talent joining Britons from Tony Jacklin and Nick Faldo to Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, and the irrepressible Ian Poulter. Four of the top ten golfers in this week’s Official World Rankings would be playing for Team Europe if this were a Ryder Cup year.

While there are many more countries that could send participants to the International Team for the Presidents Cup matches, that depth of talent has never existed among players from “the rest of the world.” After a star or two from Australia, and perhaps a familiar face from South Africa and another from Japan, the pedigree of the International squad has always dropped off precipitously. This year was no exception. Team USA sported five members currently ranked in the world’s top ten. That number would have been six, or half the team, but world number one Brooks Koepka pulled out of the matches with an injury.

His replacement was Rickie Fowler, ranked all the way down at number twenty-three. That’s one spot ahead of Matt Kuchar, the lowest ranked American walking Royal Melbourne this weekend. In contrast, only three members of the International Team ranked that high – Adam Scott at number eighteen, and Louis Oosthuizen and Hideki Matsuyama at twenty and twenty-one. Those three were also the only members of the supposed home squad recognizable to casual fans in this country.

Other players on the International Team, which had seven Cup rookies among its twelve members, hailed from locations as diverse as three different Asian countries, Canada, Mexico and Chile. Team golf may be a rare event at the professional level, but when it does occur camaraderie and connection among members of the squad is as vital as in any sport. On top of multiple language barriers and vast distances separating their home countries, players on the International Team at the Presidents Cup have no obvious external connection, like the European Union, to serve as even a starting point for team building. Many members of the supposed home team this weekend doubtless felt very far from home.

What is true today has been the case since the first matches in 1994, with predictable results. The U.S. won the inaugural Cup, held at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club south of Washington, D.C., by the lopsided score of 20-12. Only once in the years since has the International Team managed to post a victory. That was in 1998 at the same site as this weekend’s matches. Most times the outcome has not been close, so much so that this year’s result counts as one of the narrowest victory margins for Team USA.

But the one virtual certainty is that whether by two points or eight, Team USA is going to win. At best the International squad gets points for boldness. Mexico’s Abraham Ancer publicly lobbied to play Woods in the Sunday singles. Woods has eighty-two PGA Tour victories and fifteen major titles. Ancer has zero and zero. Of course, anything can happen in the course of eighteen holes. In golf as in all our sports there is a reason, as someone has been known to say, why they actually play the games. But Sunday on the first tee it was just Ancer and his clubs, not David and his sling. Even if his dream had come true, it was improbable in the extreme that Ancer’s teammates could have duplicated the feat up and down the rest of the singles pairings.

That reality, which shows no sign of changing, coupled with the stories about how his leadership and 3-0-0 performance on the course made this Presidents Cup a perfect bookend to a remarkable comeback year for playing captain Tiger Woods, provide the PGA Tour with a golden opportunity. It won’t happen, but the Tour should end this biennial non-competitive nonsense, and right now it could do so in tribute to Woods, whose leadership will never be equaled. If the Presidents Cup were gone, would anyone even notice?

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