The title of “Best Presidents Cup Ever” might seem like a low bar to clear. To cynics who can’t get past the United States team’s 9-1-1 advantage over the Internationals, perhaps even an oxymoron. But there have been some good ones. The 17-17 tie at Fancourt in South Africa in 2003, with its twilight playoff between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, was a true classic. And 2015’s 15½-14½ nailbiter in South Korea, where Anirban Lahiri’s miss of a four-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, after Chris Kirk had holed his 15-foot birdie putt, flipped the point that would have given the Internationals the Cup.
Of course, those who believe the cumulative one-sidedness of the matches has damaged the Cup’s importance might choose the International’s lone victory, a 20½-11½ blowout at Royal Melbourne in 1998.
I would beg to differ. To the point of proposing that going in, no Presidents Cup since the very first in 1994 has had a better chance to be the “best ever” than this year’s matches at Liberty National.
There’s no denying that being near a great city brings an extra of buzz to the event. It happened in San Francisco in 2009, and it’s been clear since Tuesday that these matches have been infused by the energy of New York City. The teams feel it each morning, when they leave their luxury hotels in the shadow of the Freedom Tower to take ferries across the roiling mouth of the Hudson, pass stunningly close to the Statue of Liberty and go right to a dock adjoining the course for what has to be the coolest commute in the history of golf. Meanwhile, spectators of a certain age taking the same route (and perhaps 60-year-old International captain Nick Price among the principals) will find it deliciously difficult to get Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Autumn in New York” out of their head.
For today’s opening matches, three past presidents, Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama (avid golfers all), brought their individual and collective heft to the proceedings. And it looks like President Trump – evidently confident that the golf world remains a safe haven for him politically – will make an appearance on Sunday. Which, whatever the fallout, should help shine more light on the competition.
Important, too, as the arena for a grand event, Liberty National will be a memorable and even iconic. Initial criticism from tour pros of the Bob Cupp/Tim Kite design in 2009, as Ron Whitten pointed out in his excellent retrospective for Australian Golf Digest, was born mostly on kneejerk reaction to overly penal rough. When the excess was trimmed and some green slopes softened, what emerged is a thoughtful design of strategic golf with risk/reward options that will be fully realised by matchplay. Meanwhile, the views of the lady of the harbour and the strikingly close skyline, especially as the backdrop for the par-3 18th hole (re-routed for the occasion), will be stunning.
There will be some ongoing subplots involving the two best American players of the past 30 years. Tiger Woods as an assistant captain is making his first public appearance since his spinal fusion surgery in mid-April, which was followed by a DUI arrest and treatment for better management of a prescription drugs. The 41-year-old 14-time Major winner has appeared enthusiastically engaged in his role, which includes leading the pod of Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger, but mysterious about the continuation of his competitive career. Asked in a press conference if he has conceived of a future in which he would not play, Woods answered with startling dispatch. “Definitely,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds for me.” Whoa.
And could this Presidents Cup be the last great American team event for Phil Mickelson? Though the 47-year-old who hasn’t won since his British Open triumph in 2013 and had to make the squad as a captain’s pick, his presence in the team room is unanimously considered a plus. But as younger players continue to emerge and establish prominence, can the US Ryder Cup team afford the luxury of including an elder stalwart and leader whose game is in decline? Although Mickelson was great at the last Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National, the answer to that question will be more accurately answered by how he performs at Liberty National.
As for the competition, certainly the US remains the favourite on paper. The home crowd will be a formidable 13th man, and the average World Ranking for the dozen Americans is 15.7, compared to 32.7 for the International squad, which has only come in with a higher average ranking once, in the 2007 match in Montreal that ended with an easy US win, 19½-14½.
Besides being deeper, the US team at the moment would appear to be operating inside a sweet spot of proficiency and camaraderie. Whereas the Americans Ryder Cup losses used to be blamed on the players lacking the closeness of the Europeans, lately the group of 20-something US stars led by Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler have been criticised for being too close. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Fowler duly noted.
With all that, the Internationals might have the edge in intangibles. They are obviously tired of losing, and the loss in South Korea has lingered as both a bitter motivator and confidence builder. They should have the edge in energy and enthusiasm, as all but one of the Americans played in the Tour Championship last week to conclude a long season.
Also, their two biggest guns, Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day, are flying under the radar. Less is expected of Day since he was No.1 two years ago, and he has recently shown signs of resurgence. Matsuyama reached No.2 in the world this northern summer, but has played poorly since the US PGA Championship. With expectations for him lowered, some of the enormous pressure he carries as Japan’s great hope should be lessened, and might let regain his groove.
Yet Thursday’s opening matches might actually have held the key to the outcome. The Internationals continued a chronic habit of falling badly behind after the first session, with the US taking the opening-day lead now 9 out of 12 times while building up a cumulative 44½-21½ edge in points. The continuation of this trend at Liberty National could prove particularly demoralising. But reversing it might have provided the difference-making spark.
Even if the US continues its overall domination, time – rather than running out on the Presidents Cup – might actually be on its side. Jack Nicklaus, whose visionary gifts when it comes to team matches was demonstrated in 1979 when his proposal for the Ryder Cup that players from mainland European countries be added to those from Great Britain & Ireland transformed that event from a one-sided friendly to biennial blood sport, thinks the Presidents Cup will have its day.
Citing the growth in global golf that he sees in his travels building golf courses, particularly in Asia, Nicklaus said: “The Presidents Cup encompasses the whole world with the exception of Europe, so the potential for that is probably as good or greater than the Ryder Cup.”
If Nicklaus is right, a victory by the Internationals in the big-time setting of Liberty National, might make for the best Presidents Cup ever.