News & Opinion

Forget irrelevance of Presidents Cup and enjoy show

OK, so it’s one-sided, the outcome is preordained and it’s being played on the other side of the world, but team match play is fun

There are plenty of reasons to ignore this week's Presidents Cup.

It’s not competitive. Yes, the U.S. leads the series, 10-1-1. That’s right, the Internationals have only one victory in 25 years. I’ve covered seven cups, and the U.S. is 7-0. In the 14 Ryder Cups I’ve covered, the U.S. is 5-8-1. Big difference.

It’s not important. The Prez, as I’m going to call it, doesn’t have decades of history like the Ryder Cup or the frequent bad blood of those biennial matches between the U.S. and Europe. The Prez always has been a friendly, so to speak, to its detriment as a wannabe drama queen. Ryder Cup chatter by players and media members almost never stops during the two years between matches. Chatter about The Prez usually starts only a few weeks before the event, if it happens at all.

2019 Tour Championship
Patrick Reed will provide plenty of drama to the storyline at this year’s Presidents Cup, but that’s beside the point, according to Gary Van Sickle. This is world-class match play, so enjoy it.

It lacks drama. That’s been true of late, when only once in the past seven cups has the American margin of victory been fewer than three points.

Still, The Prez has featured plenty of heroics over the years. Fred Couples holed clinching putts twice. Chris DiMarco jarred a memorable winner that had captain Jack Nicklaus padding onto the green to celebrate. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els dueled in a playoff in South Africa, only to have it called off due to darkness. Canadian Mike Weir took down Woods in a singles match in Montreal, a crowd-pleasing moment. So, The Prez is not necessarily boring.

It’s challenging to watch. Yes, when The Prez goes to Asia or Australia, as it does this week, the time change means an American viewer has to be committed to watch, what with telecasts going to midnight and beyond starting late Wednesday night through late Saturday evening into early Sunday morning. In other words, it will require an effort to watch. You’ll either have to miss your bedtime or set up your DVR on record. (I may need a 7-year-old to help me with both.)

All right, The Prez is not for everyone. It’s not the Ryder Cup, and it never will be. You’ve got to be a dedicated follower of golf to get interested. This edition of The Prez should benefit from the presence of Tiger Woods as a playing captain. There are plenty of folks who like to watch Woods who aren’t fans of golf; they’re just fans of Woods. The Prez is for serious golf fans only, a group that’s smaller than you and the monthly golf magazines think.

The one reason for watching The Prez is the same reason for watching the Ryder Cup or the LPGA’s Solheim Cup: Team match play is the most entertaining and most exciting format in televised golf. As a viewer, you have to get past the relative irrelevance of The Prez. Then, sit back and enjoy.

Match play is more watchable than stroke play because it features far more drama. Each hole in match play has an outcome: win, lose or draw. A viewer’s attachment to one team means each hole matters. A Ryder Cup cliché is that it’s the only golf event in which every fan cares about every shot. That’s true enough. You can watch Jason Day playing in a U.S. Open and if he makes birdie or bogey on a given hole, it probably doesn’t matter to you, the spectator, unless he’s in contention on the final nine.

Match play makes every hole count, regardless of who’s playing. The LPGA drew some off-base criticism during the recent Solheim Cup between Europe and the U.S. because few of the world’s top-20 players competed. Yeah, so? It featured an exciting and dramatic finish. If the hairs on the back of your neck didn’t stand up when England’s Charley Hull poured in a clutch 30-footer on the 17th hole in Sunday’s singles, or when Suzann Pettersen holed the cup-winner on the 18th, then you don’t like golf.

Men’s and women’s golf might benefit from cup formats that include the whole world, especially women’s golf, in which Japan and South Korea produce so many star players. Could three teams play one another at once? Should there be a qualifier for a third team? Or a fourth team? That’s another story.

An apt comparison might be the rise of the NCAA golf championship. It used to be a four-round stroke-play event in which the five-man team with the best total was the winner. While it was set up as a team event, to the detriment of individual golfers, it drew only minimal interest.

Once the NCAA went to match play to decide the team title, the event attracted TV coverage, and interest in the event exploded. The NCAA championship is now the big deal it always deserved to be. Television made that happen, and match play made television happen. Match play is better TV.

The Prez is good viewing, as long as it’s not a blowout, such as the one two years ago at Liberty National when the U.S. romped to a 19-11 victory.

Four years ago in South Korea, The Prez was fairly compelling. It was a fight to the finish. Chris Kirk won a late singles match over Anirban Lahiri that gave the U.S. the upper hand, but it wasn’t official until South Korea’s Sangmoon Bae flubbed a chip on the 18th hole and lost the final match to Bill Haas, son of U.S. captain Jay. It was a show worth watching.

I can’t guarantee this edition of The Prez will be close or compelling or dramatic. I think it will be, though. Brooks Koepka, ranked No. 1 in the world, won’t play because of a knee injury. There’s also the Patrick Reed Melodrama and the chance that Aussie fans will get on him for his recent well-publicized rules violation, which I call “The Case of the Unbelievable – I mean, Unplayable – Lie” (“Patrick Reed denies cheating as questions persist,” Dec. 9). It could get ugly but probably not. The Prez does not have a Ryder Cup-like history of fan misbehavior. Still, Reed is the undercard story that won’t go away.

The Internationals are missing Jason Day, out due to a bad back, but they have some talented players who are underrated because they aren’t well known in the U.S., such as Canada’s Adam Hadwin; China’s Haotong Li; Mexico’s Abraham Ancer; South Korea’s Sungjae Im; and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann.

Also, the only time the U.S. lost was in 1998, when The Prez went to Australia in December. Even though Jack Nicklaus was captain, the event was smack dab in the middle of the offseason (back in the days when the PGA Tour season stretched tediously into mid-November) and American players were unenthused about making the long trip Down Under. Probably a lot of them didn’t touch their clubs for a few weeks before the event.

That’s something that Captain Woods no doubt has in mind. Nicklaus was a hands-off captain who figured the players were big boys and responsible and would prepare for the matches as diligently as he did when he was young. That wasn’t always the case, particularly in ’98.

Woods is a contemporary of these U.S. team members, and he probably has been cajoling them or trash-talking them or whatever he thinks is necessary to make sure they’re ready. Woods knows the Internationals need to win The Prez in the worst way, and he doesn’t want it to happen on his watch.

I like the Internationals’ chances, but I really know only one thing about this edition of The Prez: It’s team match play, the best format for golf.

It will be fun … if you actually like golf.