Punchless Presidents Cup needs pizzazz
by M. James Ward
The word competition means a contest in which two sides have relatively equal opportunities in achieving victory. The Presidents Cup golf matches is anything but and in need of a major overhaul to attain what's been lacking since the event commenced in 1994. This year's event played at Liberty National Golf Club just across the Hudson River in New Jersey provided a fantastic backdrop of the Manhattan skyline along with the iconic Statue of Liberty residing in New York harbor.
The final tally -- USA team 19 points, International team 11 points. The outcome was never in doubt the final day. The American squad nearly retained the Cup prior to the final day's 12 singles matches which would have been unprecedented and a resounding embarrassment for the International squad. The loss marks the 10th time the International team has tasted defeat with only one win and one tie to show for its efforts. The American squad has now won seven straight events since 2005.
The brainchild for The Presidents Cup is the PGA TOUR and the hope at the outset was having an event of comparable stature to the more prestigious Ryder Cup matches which has team USA versus Europe. The PGA TOUR wanted a team event held bi-annually so that it could draw attention as an equivalent event with the more noted Ryder Cup. Candidly, the two events are in far different places -- the Ryder Cup being the main event with the Presidents Cup simply a sideshow in need of a major overhaul.
The International team was Captained for the third time by Nick Price. Born in South Africa and raised in Zimbabwe, the former number one player in the world and three-time major champion, suffered two previous Captain's defeats but the loss in '15 when played in South Korea was a closer contest with the American squad only winning in the final matches. Nonetheless, Price brought forward the case that reforming the format would be needed in order to put the matches more equalized. A small change happened after the '13 matches in Ohio when the total points for event was lowered from 34 to 30 in order to narrow the greater depth of the American squad. What appeared to be working after the '15 matches in South Korea with the American squad winning narrowly clearly has gone backwards in a massive way with the USA's convincing win at Liberty National.
Price was not the only vocal critic of the format. During the press conference following the event -- South African Ernie Els, also a former world number one player and four-time major champion, voiced his thoughts that the PGA TOUR needs to permit the International team to make its own decisions -- not dictated by the TOUR solely. Since the TOUR owns the event it will be interesting to see how the process unfolds as the matches head to famed Royal Melbourne in Australia for the 3rd time in '19. Els has never Captained the International squad and given his reputation it seems likely he's on the very short list for the next meeting. Els left little doubt a thorough discussion would be a plus for the event. The remaining question is whether the hierarchy of the PGA TOUR is interested in doing so. Pressure may also come from the television networks -- namely NBC-Sports which has the main contract to cover the event. Television executives value the live and unpredictable nature of sporting events but loathe having such one-sided results becoming commonplace as this will most certainly diminish the number of eyeballs tuning in will drop considerably.
Reducing the total points available from 30 to 28 would mirror what the Ryder Cup does now. That would mean following a format whereby the competition is reduced from the present four to three days. It would also mean 36-holes of various partner formats the first two days, followed by 12 singles matches to conclude the event. The reduction in points would negate the depth of a youthful and talented American squad augmented by a few seasoned veterans -- most notably Phil Mickelson who has played in every Presidents and Ryder Cup matches since 1994.
The reduction in total points would also mean more choices for the respective Captain's to make given that the partner formats of foursomes and four-balls would have only eight of the 12 players participating. Who to sit and who to play would carry even more importance and allow for even greater scrutiny of the decision-making process by the Captain's. Given the lack of depth for the Internationals the reduced number of matches and the wherewithal to lean more on its best players would seem to give the squad a better opportunity for success. Such a format would mirror the one used for Ryder Cup matches and it's likely the PGA TOUR does not wish to follow in lockstep with an event in which they are clearly competing against in order to build their own brand identity.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that the existing Presidents Cup is lacking a competitive balance. In the late 1970's Jack Nicklaus suggested the Ryder Cup team make-up be changed and include golfers from the Continent of Europe joining those from Great Britain and Ireland. The reasoning? The American squad was winning on such regular intervals that interest in the event was waning. The Nicklaus suggestion paid off immensely and the European juggernaut took hold starting in 1985 with team Europe claiming the Cup no less than 11 times in 16 events -- with the USA squad retaining the cup last year in Minnesota.The International squad is comprised of talented players but the youthful American squad has the likes of Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed leading the way and given their collective ages it's likely they will be on the scene for the next decade or so. The need for realistic change is certainly apparent. The question remains will the PGA TOUR follow suit and take seriously the input from the key leaders of the International team? That question remains to be answered with Royal Melbourne awaiting in two years time.