We are less than a week away from the start of the Presidents Cup, and now that the captain’s picks have been made (and re-made), the most interesting question ahead of the first matches concerns the pairings. Unlike past iterations of the team competitions, we can’t learn everything from history. Too many linchpins of former partnerships, such as Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka and even Phil and Bubba Watson, aren’t around. And other partnerships that are theoretically possible, such as Tiger and Patrick Reed or Tiger and Bryson DeChambeau, were shockingly unsuccessful at the last year’s Ryder Cup, so much so to make it appear unlikely to see them reprised in Melbourne.
From there, the questions spin out: where do you put someone like Webb Simpson, who in the past has been little more than a special chaperone for Bubba Watson? What about the perpetually problematic Reed? And what about the Presidents Cup rookies? Even a “first-timer” like Finau, who fared well in the Ryder Cup in France, is missing his old partner in Koepka.
It’s a bit of a mess, or at least a complex puzzle, but we do have one good (if not quite comprehensive) piece of intelligence. That comes from this week’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, where Tiger had influence on the opening round tee-times, and where almost the entire American Presidents Cup team (Dustin Johnson is the only missing member) is playing. Here are those pairings:
Tiger helps set the Round 1 pairings at the Hero. And so it's likely a preview of what we'll see next week at the Presidents Cup. pic.twitter.com/7dIrRSK8mL
— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) December 2, 2019
Yes, the twosomes weren’t playing as partners but rather against each other, and an entire 18-player field, in a strokeplay competition. Still, it’s worth the time to give a few thoughts on each for future consideration as we look at next week’s pairings.
Tiger and Justin Thomas makes an awful lot of sense, and probably predictable from the moment Tiger called his own number as a captain’s pick and left Jordan Spieth at home. Lost last year in the Moli-wood triumphs and the American humiliation outside Paris was that Thomas had an incredible week, going 4-1. He was the MVP for Team USA, and it wasn’t really close. Thomas also had success with Rickie Fowler in the 2017 Presidents Cup, but it’s Tiger’s prerogative to pair himself with whoever he wants, and an easygoing personality like Thomas who also happens to be dynamite in his short matchplay career looks like a no-brainer. I’d expect a Thomas-Fowler pairing to kick things off on Thursday, but if I’m right that Tiger will only play two pairs matches overall, I believe it will be in foursomes on Friday and Saturday – Woods’ record in Presidents Cup foursomes is stellar – and his partner for both will be Thomas. (This also lets Tiger watch and evaluate on Thursday.)
Reed and Cantlay would be a fascinating if dubious solution to the P-Reed “problem”. Reed’s history in these events is well-documented, from his (usually) excellent play to the interpersonal drama that has made it difficult at times to find him a good partner. Cantlay is a tough man to read – his career has been slightly snake-bit, and he’s not someone prone to smiles and good cheer. If these two play together in Melbourne (they finished T-14 as a duo at the 2017 Zurich Classic), I would expect it to be in four-ball, mostly because it allows them to play “separate” more than foursomes… which is best for both of them, and the team.
DeChambeau and Webb Simpson seems like a default pairing – we don’t know who else to put either with, so why not? Before last year’s Ryder Cup, Simpson hadn’t played in an international match since his personal disaster at Gleneagles in 2014, and DeChambeau was the unluckiest man in France, getting stuck with a struggling Phil Mickelson on Friday and a struggling Tiger on Saturday in his only two chances at pairs. This is not an inspired duo, and it feels tentative (as I’ll explain later).
Fowler and Finau also feels speculative and fragile, as potential pairs go. Fowler’s form is a big unknown as he hasn’t played a tournament since the Tour Championship in August (although an opening-round 69 at the Hero was positive), and Finau has stumbled through the northern autumn. Finau is probably the hotter commodity, having performed well in France (even throttling the previously unbeatable Fleetwood in Sunday singles), and with a game suited to these events – four-ball in particular. Four players have to sit out the first two sessions, Fowler clearly has to be one of them as the 13th man. With four-ball as the first session, my bet is that this pair gets blown up right away, and appears, if at all, on Saturday after some things other shake out.
Which leaves Schauffele and Woodland and, by default, Kuchar and Dustin Johnson. Kuchar and DJ teamed in the 2017 Presidents Cup to go 2-0 and were 1-1 together at Hazeltine National during the 2016 Ryder Cup. Seemingly, then, that’s an obvious choice – successful experience is in short supply in terms of American pairings, so in cases like these where there’s some history for Tiger to lean on, lean he must. As for the Schauffele/Woodland pair, all you can really say is… OK, sure. The partnership covers a lot of ground, in terms of varied skill, although there doesn’t seem to be much chemistry potential.
Let’s go beyond the Hero tee-times, and look at how some of these dynamics could shift for Melbourne. Of all the pairings above, I consider Kuchar-DJ and Woods-Thomas the most likely, but there are some other interesting combinations in play, including:
Schauffele-DeChambeau and/or Schauffele-Reed: With big personalities like Reed and DeChambeau, you need someone whose demeanour is a little more relaxed, more forgiving. It won’t be Thomas or Fowler, which leaves Schauffele. Pairing Xander with either fellow young gun and allowing him to absorb some of their wild energy feels like a smarter move than throwing Cantlay or Simpson into the mix. Those are personality clashes waiting to happen, but Schauffele is adaptable. If anybody understands this dynamic, it’s assistant captains Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker, both of whom fit that same description. If the Reed-Cantlay partnership fails during its first go-round, I think you’ll see a quick adjustment with Schauffele plugged in.
Fowler-Thomas: These two lit it up in 2017, and if Tiger does sit out on Thursday, this is a likely pair – especially because Fowler probably will sit out one of the first two days, and Thomas will certainly play both days. It’s easy to just shift JT from Rickie to Tiger.
Cantlay-Finau: This makes way too much sense – a better blend of personalities, a terrific blend of games (Finau needs to be paired with a great putter), and an obviously potent four-ball combination. It won’t happen until Saturday, though, if it happens at all.
Kuchar-Finau: One pressing issue is that DJ might not be at full health, coming off knee surgery and not having played in competition since August, which means he’ll likely sit one of the first two days. That leaves Kuchar without a partner but sets him up perfectly to be the DJ-Finau fulcrum, with the potentially rusty DJ and the recently cold Finau each taking an early break.
Woodland-Simpson: One big bomber, one great putter. It’s logical, especially when there aren’t many other obvious partners for either. Call this the poor man’s version of Kuchar-DJ.
Cantlay-DeChambeau: This is based purely on the theory that Fowler, DJ and Tiger are locks to sit out one of the first two days, while Kuchar’s ability to rotate between similar players in DJ and Finau means Finau becomes the other player benched. Which – stay with me here – means the Schauffele/Reed/Cantlay/DeChambeau could be shuffled if any of the pairings don’t work out and the Internationals have a strong Thursday. Putting all the other puzzle pieces in place, Cantlay and DeChambeau could be a logical match.
All that said, it’s time to finalise my lineups at least for the opening two days. Let me summon my inner Tiger…
Sitting: Tiger, DJ
Sitting: Fowler, Finau
That’s plenty of game theory for now. Spending too much time in Tiger’s head is dangerous, and in a week the speculation will give way, at last, to the real thing.