If you ask Paul McGinley, the biggest mistake Ernie Els made in an otherwise stellar captaincy at the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne came on Saturday night as he prepared to set his next day’s singles line-up.
Holding a 10-8 lead that could have been even bigger, the International team captain opted to hold some of his best and most experienced players for the end of the lineup, apparently reasoning that if the match was close overall, he would have his stalwarts ready for the tense closing moments. Els kept some strength up top, but threw some of his more inexperienced, less successful charges into the fray in early positions.
This surprised McGinley because he had been impressed by the way Els opted for early strength in his lineups during the first four sessions. Why deviate come Sunday?
“It wasn’t for me to go and tell Ernie what to do,” McGinley said in a 2020 interview, “but if he had come to me for advice, that is what he should have done… the way to beat America is you gotta go at them early the first two days while they’re jet-lagged and not used to the golf course. You need to build up a big lead and you need to pump your best players those first two days. He nearly did it. I think he could have killed it [Sunday] with the way he put the team out the first few days.”
McGinley’s theory, borne out through experience, is that the psychological effect of putting points on the board early in a session is worth more to the team than saving your best players for the late matches.
Here’s where things get tricky: if the Presidents Cup used the same system as the Ryder Cup for setting pairings – which is to say, a blind draw in which both captains set their order without knowing what the other is doing – Els may have done exactly that. The fact that the Presidents Cup is different, with captains utilising an alternating snake draft method in which one captain puts out a team or player, the other captain responds then puts out his next player/team, and so forth, creates a very different dynamic.
As it happened, Els put Abraham Ancer out first, and though Ancer had been strong that week, it set up a difficult match-up with Tiger Woods that potentially threw off the rest of Els’ thinking. After that, he essentially sacrificed C.T. Pan and Hoatong Li when Tiger (wearing his captain’s hat) put Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson in the third and fourth positions. Suffice it to say, the day played out terribly for the Internationals, with the Americans winning 3½ points in the first four matches. That killed the momentum on the course and silenced the fans, eventually dooming International team veterans like Scott, Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen at the back of the line-up, who weren’t able to come through as Els envisioned.
It was a fascinating demonstration of the differences between the two methods of setting matches, and the effects it can have on the course. Go deep enough on this, and it’s easy to reach the conclusion that these differing systems not only produce different strategies, but even different outcomes.
At the Ryder Cup, there is a magic in two discrete line-ups being constructed in the confines of the team rooms, then put together side by side in a compelling revelation of who will play who. At the Presidents Cup, there is the palpable drama of the captains and their assistants sitting on opposite ends of a dais, huddling and whispering as they engage in a face-to-face game of wits and put out the teams as though issuing – and answering – challenges.
Which is better? As younger brother to the more prestigious Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup is often given a bit of faint praise: in this respect, allowing the interaction between captains in setting the matches, they exceed the older event. At certain times, particularly when witnessing the back-and-forth, it’s easy to agree.
Kevin Kisner is one who prefers the Presidents Cup style.
“I think going back and forth is way cooler,” Kisner said, “because then you can kinda find out if some guys want to play against other guys, and you can have a little chip on your shoulder. If they they posted against you when you posted first, they obviously want to go against you.”
Fellow American Tony Finau made the point that it opens up opportunities for back-channel communication between players and captains if someone is eager to play against a particular opponent.
To truly compare the two methods, though, the best sources are the Americans who have held leadership roles in both events.
“You’ve got to kind of change your mind frame,” said Zach Johnson, who has served as an assistant in both formats and will captain next year’s US Ryder Cup team in Rome. “The bottom line is this: depending upon what we do this afternoon, you have control over who you put out two or three times Thursday and Friday, and then you have control over, what, four of the matches on Saturday and six on Sunday. That’s different than the Ryder Cup.”
His point was that essentially your influence can be cut in half at the Presidents Cup – you may be blind to the opponent’s machinations in the Ryder Cup, but you also don’t have to react to what they’re doing.
Johnson and Steve Stricker, though, were both adamant that they don’t prefer any particular method over the other. Stricker has been a captain in both events, and he actually believes that team strategy isn’t very different between the two formats.
“I feel like it’s the same each and every year,” he said. “We’ve gotten to that point. That’s why you’re seeing better team results from USA Golf because it’s gotten more consistent from team to team. From the stats guys that we use, from the pairings, to the communication to the players, all that has gotten really a lot more consistent, I think, from each team.”
In the end, it’s hard not to agree with Johnson, who simply appreciates the variety.
“I think the beauty of the established Cups we have is that they’re different,” he said. “I think that’s what’s unique.”