News & Opinion

‘Fired up’ Internationals seek to reverse tide

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Will this be another week of what some detractors refer to as “Ryder Cup lite” or the birth of a rivalry at the Presidents Cup? 

To put it in terms that recent FedEx Cup champion Justin Thomas, a rookie in this biennial team competition, would understand, the Presidents Cup to date has been a lot like the Alabama-Vanderbilt rivalry. Let's hope this rendition is a little closer than Thomas' Crimson Tide rolling to a 59-0 victory on Saturday. The American side owns a 9-1-1 record. In 1998, when the Internationals posted their lone victory, Thomas and American teammates Jordan Spieth and Daniel Berger were not long out of diapers.

Some fear it could be more of the same. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said jokingly, “If this was a fight, they wouldn't let it start.”

This year's international side includes six players outside the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, whereas Phil Mickelson is the lowest ranked American, at No. 30 (http://bit.ly/2ftFUjI). Chamblee went on to argue that on paper the U.S. side is demonstrably better in every aspect, noting that the Americans are statistically better ball-strikers and more than twice as good with the short stick. (The average strokes gained: putting rank for the International side is 103rd, he said.)

“They have a lot of hurdles,” Chamblee said. “If I were Nick Price, I would be talking about what a year this has been in terms of upsets.” 

Price, who returns for his third tour of duty as International team captain, is a fountain of optimism. He points to the 1983 Ryder Cup when the Americans celebrated a one-point victory on U.S. soil. Afterward, the Europeans slumped shoulders and hung heads in the team locker room until Seve Ballesteros piped up and lifted their spirits.

“He looked at them all and said, 'No, no, no. Don't be depressed. This is like a victory for us. We only need one more point,’ ” Price said, recounting the story.

In 2015, at the Presidents Cup in South Korea, American Chris Kirk holed a 20-foot putt on the final green to defeat India's Anirban Lahiri, and the U.S. prevailed, 15½-14½. Price set the wheels in motion to end U.S. domination and nearly pulled off an improbable upset.

“It was a coin flip in Korea,” International assistant captain Geoff Ogilvy said. “Both sides thought they were going to win. It was like right on the edge.”

The implication from Price’s Ryder Cup flashback was clear: although he wasn’t celebrating a moral victory, he believed this could be a turning point in the Presidents Cup that puts an end to a lopsided competition. This week will go a long way toward determining whether Price will be remembered as the International team’s version of Tony Jacklin, who accepted the captain’s role in 1983 and two years later became the inspirational leader of Europe’s first triumph in 28 years. That victory ignited an intense rivalry. 

Price's infectious enthusiasm and indomitable spirit energized his team and lifted its confidence. This time, he will tell them to throw out the record books and the current world rankings because match play is a great equalizer. Forget the cultural differences and language barriers. Ogilvy believes that the International side is tired of losing, and that will be the bond that leads them to victory. Losing a close contest the last time burned more, and having eight returning players will be the difference. 

“We've got to find that extra 1 percent that Europe has often found in the Ryder Cup,” he said. “It's that unexplainable desire or something, whatever it is. You can't put your finger on it, but I think this is the best chance we've got at creating that type of atmosphere in the team. The boys are fired up. That's what it feels like already.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak