News & Opinion

Internationals bury any hope on back nine

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – In blowout losses, there is a lot of second-guessing and finger-pointing.  

International captain Nick Price is not looking to assess blame entering the final day of the Presidents Cup, and he never would allow such disrespect on his team. However, he and his likely successor, Ernie Els, will have to spend some time reviewing exactly went wrong.

They will have plenty of material.

The Internationals face a 14½-3½ deficit entering today’s 12 singles matches at Liberty National Golf Club. The Americans need to win only one point to secure their seventh consecutive victory in the biennial series and run their overall record to 10-1-1 (scores and pairings: http://bit.ly/2xzUKfk).

One easy answer for Price in his post-mortem would be that a conglomeration of players from the four corners of the earth could not finish off matches. Multiple languages – English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Afrikaans among them – differing cultures and inexperience in international team play could emerge as factors. 

An inability to close out matches on the back nine has crippled the Internationals.  

Ironically, the Americans faced a similar shortcoming near the turn of the century in their Ryder Cup matches against Europe. The U.S. lost six of the first seven matches against Europe before finally turning the tide in 2016 with a six-point victory at Hazeltine National. In the 211 holes that were contested on the back nine at Hazeltine, the Americans won 58 to the Europeans’ 53.

The U.S. continued the trend at Liberty National this week. After three days of play, the Americans won 39 of the 131 holes that were contested on the back nine, or 30 percent, compared with the Internationals’ 20 victories, or 15 percent.  

“There's a lot of trust on this team,” said Jordan Spieth, who has teamed with Patrick Reed to compile a 3-0-1 record in foursomes and four-ball play. “As a team, we've played [holes] 12-18 extremely well this week, something that we've struggled to do, especially in the Ryder Cup. I think we've had a lot of matches flip at that point in time historically. This has been a phenomenal confidence booster for us, to be able to close matches and flip matches in those late holes where we can really ride this momentum with the crowd.” 

An inability to finish has not been the Internationals’ only problem. Many factors go into what is shaping up as a record loss in this series, potentially eclipsing the Americans’ 21½-10½ rout in 2000. Yet, captains and players talk about the critical role that momentum plays in the team game.

Nowhere is momentum more pivotal than on the back nine, with a partisan U.S. crowd eager for something to cheer. Any loss of a hole for the Internationals accelerates the momentum swing.

“They find a will and a way to gut it out and make some key shots, make some key putts and rally back to do what they did in the afternoon,” U.S. captain Steve Stricker said of his players, who flipped two of the afternoon four-ball matches after trailing at the turn. “So that happened quite a bit during the week, where we got off to some slow starts and they fought their way back and ended up winning the whole session again.”

For Price, his team’s inability to capture momentum often can be traced to the back nine and an failure to close.

“The last two days, we've just had no momentum,” Price said. “I don't know how you get that. The American team has made a lot of putts. They have hit great shots. Every time we had an opportunity to do something, we seemed to take the wrong road or the wrong direction… Five of us [including the four assistant captains] have racked our brains to try to change some of the pairings and see if we could mix it up a little bit, but it seems like everything we tried kind of backfired on us.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli