News & Opinion

Presidents Cup flips weight of world ranking

Among many lessons learned from the matches, the Americans’ so-called favored status matters little when the Internationals press a few of their advantages and nearly win

There are lessons to be learned from this latest Presidents Cup, but they aren’t the lessons you might think.

All that stuff about the Americans being heavy favorites in the eventual 16-14 victory Sunday, that experience matters and, my personal all-wrong favorite – you’ve got to walk before you can run, so therefore Internationals are making progress – is a bunch of baloney.

Tiger-Woods-2019-Prez-Cup.jpg
As player and captain, Tiger Woods finds the will to help the Americans win another Presidents Cup.

Allow me to take out the trash and tell you what we should have learned:

Rank and file. The Official World Golf Ranking isn’t worth the digital pixels on which it is written. Oh, who’s No. 1 is usually somewhat valid. Maybe the top five or six or eight players in the ranking are head and shoulders above the rest. But the difference between the next 25 players is as slim as my chances of hosting “Wheel of Fortune.”

Numbers can fool you. A player ranked 16th in the world sounds significantly better than a player ranked 35th. In professional golf, they’re pretty much the same. And over the course of a single 18-hole match, they’re completely interchangeable.

So, the whole idea that the U.S. team was a heavy favorite, if based on the OWGR, was off-base. All 12 Americans were ranked among the world’s top 25; only two International players were top 25. So, it was a mismatch? Not hardly, and definitely not with American Brooks Koepka, the world’s No. 1 gun, missing in action.

That’s why I wagered a small sum on the Internationals early in the week. I didn’t think there was a significant-enough difference in talent levels to overcome the Internationals’ other advantages: time zone, course knowledge, style of play required at old-school Royal Melbourne and home-crowd support. My bet would have paid off at odds of 2.8-1, which is what attracted me in the first place. It was a good bet, maybe even a smart bet, but ultimately it was not a winning bet.

Still, who didn’t come away from the Presidents Cup being impressed by the likes of Sungjae Im, Abraham Ancer, Adam Hadwin and Cameron Smith? One or more of them will win a major championship. The lesson: Don’t let a player’s world ranking serve as an anchor to his potential.

Flight plan. The best way to beat the Americans in any cup, Ryder or Presidents, is to tire them out. Jet lag, International officials, is an effective weapon when combined with fatigue.

Most of the American team played in the tournament hosted by Tiger Woods in the Bahamas that ended on the preceding Saturday. Then the U.S. team made the long, long flight to Australia. The U.S. squad didn’t appear to wake up until late in the second session, when it rallied to turn a potential 9-1 deficit into a far more manageable 6½-3½ hole, maybe the ultimate turning point for the U.S.

This scheduling matter worked almost as well as last year’s Ryder Cup, when Woods was drained by his emotional Tour Championship win, and other players (including Rory McIlroy) were out of gas before they left Atlanta and flew to France. As you might recall, the U.S. sleepwalked through that Ryder Cup and got drilled. Was fatigue part of that? It sure looked that way. It definitely wasn’t ambivalence.

So, Internationals, when scheduling the 2023 Presidents Cup, if you’re not going back to Royal Melbourne (go back to Royal Melbourne!), then go for as much jet lag as possible. Make sure the Presidents Cup is played immediately after Woods’ tournament again, and stick it as far on the other side of the planet as possible. India sounds about right.

P.S. Internationals, I’m invoicing you for this idea.

Back in the saddle. Even horses need rest, especially if they’re really big horses.

This seems like more of a factor in Ryder Cups, in which matches are jammed into three days. The Presidents Cup slides gracefully through four days, which I prefer.

The mental fatigue of playing five matches might outweigh the physical fatigue factor, but it shouldn’t be overlooked, even when we’re talking about professional athletes.

Five Internationals played five matches, which meant they endured a double session on Saturday. Only one of them, Im, won his Sunday singles match. Three Americans played five matches. Two of them, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, won in singles.

That’s not much of a sample from which to draw a conclusion, but you can see a trend.

Those results maybe make a case that the Americans had more players playing well than the Internationals, too, so perhaps Captain Woods didn’t have to send his biggest guns out five times. Note that Woods took Saturday off himself, skipping two sessions, and was well-rested Sunday when he drilled Ancer in singles, which reminds me …

Let sleeping dogs lie. Especially if they’re the biggest dogs ever or, say, the Big Cat. Last month at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico, Ancer expressed his enthusiasm about being on the International team and said he “would like to play against Tiger Woods” in Australia. It wasn’t an aggressive comment; Ancer didn’t say he was going to take Woods down. He simply said what a lot of young players were thinking, that it would be a great opportunity to experience what it’s like to play against modern golf’s greatest player.

There was no implied insult, but Woods took it personally, anyway. He might forgive, but he doesn’t forget. Plus, Woods has never shied away from a chance to motivate himself. When the International team sent Ancer out first in singles, Captain Woods couldn’t wait to slot his own name in as the opponent. Remember, buddy, you asked for it. Then Woods stepped on Ancer’s neck, won the match and made reference to Ancer’s request in the winning team’s press conference.

It felt a lot like the time in 2006 when Canadian Stephen Ames dissed Woods, who retaliated by obliterating him in the World Match Play Championship, 9 and 8. When asked whether Ames’ comments had fired him up, Woods smiled and answered only, “Nine and eight.”

So, yeah, the answer was a yes. Woods is about to turn 44 at the end of this month, but take a hint: Do not piss him off. Which, come to think of it, was maybe why the Americans won the Presidents Cup. They didn’t want to face him if they weren’t taking the cup home.

Old news. The Internationals didn’t lose because they were too young. Their average age was 28.9 years, making them the youngest Presidents Cup team ever fielded. Stroke-play tournaments are won over 72 holes, but in team match play, matches are won over a mere 18 holes. The best players don’t always win. Thus, an 18-hole team match-play event is effectively a putting contest.

The Internationals lost because they didn’t hole as many putts, or at least as many clutch putts. Oddly, this is the same reason why the Americans keep losing the Ryder Cup. They can’t seem to make anything until they get so far behind that they’re almost out of it, the pressure lifts, and the putts start dropping. Often, it is too late.

Three clutch International putts in Sunday’s singles could have changed the Presidents Cup outcome, especially when you consider that four matches ended in ties. So, you don’t have to reinvent fire, International team. The Presidents Cup is all about putting. Use your wild-card picks on your best putters and/or your hottest putters.

Relevance is irrelevant. Some critics pounded the Presidents Cup and the LPGA’s Solheim Cup for being irrelevant. Why? Well, gee, the Presidents Cup doesn’t go back 90 years like the Ryder Cup does, and the Solheim Cup is missing most of the world’s highest-ranked players because they come from South Korea and Japan, not America or Europe. Aww.

Outside of the major championships, name two events this year that had more thrilling finishes than the Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup. You can’t.

The Solheim featured a stirring European comeback that materialized after Charley Hull sank a long putt across the 17th green and then strutted after it, and Suzann Pettersen holed the winner on the 18th green. Pettersen’s putt was the last stroke played in the event, and her last stroke. She retired from competitive golf after that.

The Presidents Cup set up for a win-win Sunday. If the Internationals won, it would have been a big deal. They were 1-10-1 before this year’s event, and it would’ve put Woods at 0-1 as a captain. If the U.S. won, it was going to involve a considerable comeback from the first two days of competition. That’s what happened as the U.S. won six singles matches, tied four and lost only two, a stretch drive rarely seen in team events.

Far from being irrelevant, last week proved that the Internationals are, indeed, a worthy competitor for the United States. No changes are needed. The Internationals coulda-woulda-shoulda won. It was a good show. So maybe the Presidents Cup isn’t the pseudo life-and-death event the Ryder Cup is hyped to be, but did you see how uncharacteristically happy Woods was after the win and how he clearly had to choke back tears on a few occasions?

You know what is irrelevant? Having an international competition that excludes some of the world’s best players. It always has seemed unfair that non-Europeans such as Gary Player, Bob Charles, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Adam Scott and all the rest have to sit on the sidelines and watch the Ryder Cup.

I believe the Presidents Cup should merge with the Ryder Cup, with the Presidents Cup victor advancing to play the defending Ryder Cup champion every two years in the Ryder Cup. It’s a way to get the whole world involved in the Ryder Cup, but that’s another story, and I recently wrote it … again (“A merger plan with a 1-in-a-million shot,” Dec. 1).

There was one main lesson to learn from last weekend: If Tiger Woods cares enough to cry at the end of an event, it’s relevant.

Congratulations, Presidents Cup. My Tiger Meter says you have arrived.

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