News & Opinion

When will Internationals stand up to U.S.?

AKRON, Ohio – Four years ago at Muirfield Village, Steve Stricker found himself paired in the Presidents Cup with a rookie newcomer named Jordan Spieth.

So, what became of that Spieth kid, anyway?

You already know. Three major championships before age 24, including last month’s British Open at Royal Birkdale, where he rode home on a meteoric birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie spurt. In 2013, however, Spieth was a little more raw as Stricker’s partner.

“He was very nervous. He didn’t play particularly well the first nine, and he kept apologizing to me,” Stricker said Tuesday before the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. “I finally had to put my arm around him like a dad – and I’m old enough to be his dad – and say, ‘It’s OK. We’ve all been in this position, and, you know, I’m here for you.’ That’s what this event is about: holding up your partner when things aren’t going the way you planned.”

Spieth turned it around on the back nine, made some key putts and the Stricker-Spieth duo earned a 1-up victory over Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge.

“I don’t worry about him anymore,” Stricker said with a chuckle.

Stricker is captain of the American squad that will take on the International team in the Presidents Cup at Liberty National in two months. Stricker and Nick Price, captain of the International side, stopped off in Akron to stir up interest.

The story of the Presidents Cup is that the Internationals have curiously been outclassed since the inaugural event in 1994. Their only victory came in 1998, when the event was held in Australia in December and the American squad seemed disinterested. 

The Americans are 9-1-1, and their margin of victory has been less than three points only twice. A real rivalry requires two rivals. The Internationals put up a game fight two years ago in South Korea and lost by one point. Overall, their disparate backgrounds, multiple languages and difficulties in bonding apparently have held them back.

“It’s always made me wonder how the U.S. team has dominated,” Stricker said. “When I played against Nick in ’96, the International team was unbelievably strong. I was like, ‘There’s no way in hell we can compete against that team.’ And we ended up beating them. I think we have a slight advantage because we play the Ryder Cup. We have team competition and gain some cohesiveness in a year when they’re sitting idle.”

Price made sure that a big photo of the ’98 team celebrating its only PC victory was a focal point of the locker room two years ago. 

“Look at Adam Scott and Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen and the other guys who have played a lot. It’s tough. They don’t know what it’s like to win,” Price said. “I told our guys last time, ‘You’ve got to know what the feeling is like to be with 11 teammates and to win. It’s a fantastic feeling.’ Once they get the taste of it, I think it’ll be a totally different event.”

When Price asked to be captain of the 2013 team that played at Muirfield Village, he was stunned and hurt to discover a general feeling of apathy among his players.

“So, I knew I had my work cut out,” Price said. 

The matches were close two years ago, in part by design. Four matches were eliminated from the format, lessening a perceived gap in the International team’s depth of talent. 

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Price said, “but the format change was huge.”

Stricker will continue to look after his former partner, Spieth, following his wild-and-crazy finish at Royal Birkdale.

“I’m going to check to make sure that the range is in-bounds for the Presidents Cup,” Stricker said jokingly. “Do you know if it is, Nick?”

Price laughed and shook his head.

“We’ll never see Jordan hit another tee shot like that,” he said.

Maybe not. Price is right about one other thing regarding the 12th Presidents Cup, too.

“This is a big one for all of us,” he said.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle