News & Opinion

Presidents Cup ‘rivalry’ could use some rivals

Lacking passion and conflict, biennial matches predictably end in U.S. romp over Internationals, so why would this year be any different?

Rivals. Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em. A good old-fashioned grudge match is the lifeblood of sports. It’s what keeps us up at night, makes our day, separates us from the animals … well, a few of them.

A competition can be compelling without heated rivalries. Athletic excellence is appreciable and entertaining on its own merit. But it’s not the same without emotional skin in the game, without battle scars, without give and take. Brothers gotta hug, and sports fans gotta hate.

Valero Texas Open 2019
International captain Ernie Els faces a big challenge next week to get his team playing more like the Globetrotters and less like the hapless Generals against Matt Kuchar (left) and the Americans in the Presidents Cup.

Look at what has happened to college football. The money grab and conference-hopping has killed rivalries. For instance, Missouri and Kansas began playing each other in football in 1891. But they haven’t seen each other since 2011, or since Missouri joined the SEC.

With its recent appeal of NCAA sanctions rejected, with a coaching change in progress, Missouri has issues. But one of its biggest problems, contributing to its thinning home attendance, is that it no longer has rivalries. Missouri has no rivalry with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia … it has an agreement. It’s a blood donor.

The same thing has happened to Nebraska-Oklahoma, Notre Dame-Michigan, Texas-Texas A&M, and so on. All great rivalries, all gone.

At the same time, rivalries need conflict to remain relevant, protagonists and antagonists. Like Grace Slick, fans need “somebody to love.” But they also need somebody to hate. Competition can exist without a rivalry, but it doesn’t work well the other way around.

When the outcome is predictable and inevitable, the antagonism becomes manufactured and synthetic. Bragging rights aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed. No longer is it Coke vs. Pepsi, more like Frank Sinatra vs. Sinead O’Connor, Facebook vs. MySpace, Globetrotters vs. Generals … Ohio State vs. Michigan.

You don’t hate the conquered; you feel sorry for them.

Which brings us to the PGA Tour version, aka the Presidents Cup. Athletic excellence promises to be on display – promises being the operative word. It may be appreciable, possibly even entertaining. But rivalrous?

Let’s check the standings. In Presidents Cup play thus far, Team USA is 10-1-1, while the scrappy International squad is 1-10-1. The average margin for U.S. victories has been nearly five points, including a 19-11 laugher in the most recent matchup, in 2017.

As happens, the lone International win took place in 1998 at Royal Melbourne in Australia, the same ball field that will be in play next week. Not sure how that affects the spread. Perhaps the homefield advantage has a 21-year shell life.

All 12 members of Tiger Woods’ 2019 Prez Cup Yankees hold space in the Official World Golf Ranking’s top 25, with seven in the top 12. On the International side, three of captain Ernie Els’ competitors are in the top 25, none higher than 15th.

In short, the matchups are nondescript. The anticipation is so thick, you can use it to floss your teeth.

This isn’t a rivalry; this is an AFC North matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals. When it’s over, they should skip the trophy presentation and hand out participation medals.

That said, strange things do happen. Buster Douglas stopped Mike Tyson; the 1980 U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets; Harold Baines is in Cooperstown; and Daryl Hall and John Oates are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Frankly, that’s what the Presidents Cup needs: something different, something contentious.

Rivalry is what is missing here, and a rivalry needs both sides to participate. Without it, you have nothing more than fluff, a curiosity, at best. The Ryder Cup didn’t become compelling until the U.S. began losing. Now, the Europeans have won nine of the past 12, a bone of contention in the states, a source of pride across the pond.

Whether the presently construed Internationals can win so consistently seems questionable. The PGA Tour might need to make adjustments or consider a more inclusive blueprint. The PGA and its Ryder Cup associates did, and they invented a better wheel.

Rivals. Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em.