News & Opinion

Presidents Cup runneth over with excitement

Why mess with a good thing? From the Internationals’ weeklong mettle to Tiger Woods’ splendid dual role for the victorious Americans, this matchup offered plenty to applaud

Now that we’ve had at least one normal night’s rest from the late-night couch sessions that filled the past week, we can take complete measure, and the verdict is this: Wow! That was one hell of a Presidents Cup, was it not?

The U.S. was pushed to the brink by its feisty, get-off-my-pants-leg underdog hosts in Australia, riding a rousing singles session (8-4) to a thrilling 16-14 victory Sunday over the Internationals. Match play is risky, but when it’s good, it’s so good. With the Solheim Cup and the Ryder Cup residing on distant shores, it’s nice to have at least one cup we can count upon, eh? As one Aussie scribe noted, on that side, “It’s been a long, long time between drinks.”

Presidents Cup 2019
Tiger Woods, who went 3-0 as a player, also emerged unbeaten as a captain as he and Tony Finau celebrate the Americans’ Presidents Cup triumph at Royal Melbourne.

Some parting thoughts and shots from the 2019 Presidents Cup:

* You’ve really got to feel for Ernie Els, the captain who came up on the short side of the result to a smiling assassin/GOAT who has beaten him on many an occasion, one Tiger (3-0) Woods. Els put in lots of time and effort to help turn around what has been a losing culture (1-10-1 heading into Royal Melbourne), and it was very evident that his words, his detailed plan and his firm actions had an impact. His boys were ready to go, and made their own little rally late Saturday to avoid being 9-9 into singles (they went in leading 10-8). They got a fantastic emotional charge out of playing under a new unifying black-and-gold shield and bridged troublesome communication gaps. We all should hope that the Els captaincy will be one sturdy brick in the foundation to better days ahead in making the PC competitive.

“Guys are playing for one another,” Els said.

Els, who turned 50 in October, makes his Champions Tour debut next month in Hawaii. Not sure whether he will want to expend the energy to be captain again in 2021 (one source says Els might serve as an assistant, but likely not captain). For a man who counts his many airline miles, Charlotte, N.C. (Quail Hollow) is a lot closer from his South Florida home than Melbourne, Australia. It’s not often that a losing side has momentum. The PGA Tour would be crazy not to ask him.

* You know what the Internationals lack on their team? Well, they could use one world-beating, multi-major-winning stud to lead and to rally behind, as Continental Europe did 40 years ago behind Seve Ballesteros. But they also could use an International Monty, or Sergio – that is, a “villain” who can win matches and irritate the U.S. team to no end. Did you study the faces in the Internationals’ team picture this week? Choir boys. This group looks like 12 of the nicest guys you’d ever meet (mostly because they are), who not only bag all your groceries but also insist that they wheel them to the car, unload them, tell you which products have too many carbs and calories, and then return the cart. What are the chances that Patrick Reed has any cousins coming through the junior ranks in Johannesburg?

* Loved to see the postgame emotion and outright joy shown by 41-year-old Matt Kuchar, who earned the clinching point for the U.S. when his 5-footer for birdie at 17 in Sunday’s penultimate match secured the U.S. victory. He and Woods have a playful relationship, and Kuchar has been a mainstay on U.S. teams for a number of years (though he was an assistant captain last fall in Paris). Any time you hole a clinching point in a cup, it’s a very cool moment in your career.

Of course, when Kuchar then gave away the 18th hole to South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and settled for a tie, it qualified him for the Justin Leonard Award. When you think of the incredible 1999 Ryder Cup, the first thought becomes the long putt that Leonard made at The Country Club’s famed 17th green to clinch a half (against Jose Maria Olazabal) and the cup, right? But did you know that Leonard finished 0-1-3 that week? So did Kuchar at Royal Melbourne.

* With a Presidents Cup not decided until the final hour (as was the case four years ago in South Korea), can we agree on at least a three-cup moratorium on the uninspired pleas that the Presidents Cup only can be saved, or relevant, if it were to become a mixed-team event? Puh-lease ...

* This writer has had the good fortune to play Royal Melbourne, and it proved (again) to be a fantastic venue. It was firm and fast, had some cool risk/reward holes that players could go after with driver (or, at No. 11 some days, even 3-woods), required some great strategy and shot-making, and was capped off with putting surfaces so slick that Augusta National and Oakmont were rumored to have blushed. Royal Melbourne truly is one of the game’s great wonders, a must-see and must-play.

Still, allow me this digression: Great courses get a tremendous amount of built-in “tradition” points and respect. If you built an exact replica of Royal Melbourne today, say, oh, outside Seattle, called it, oh, I don’t know, Chambers Bay, and had the exact same four days of golf, wouldn’t the almighty Twitter Universe go spastic with claims that the golf we’re witnessing, the 9-irons bouncing 8 feet into the air and putts screaming 20 feet past, is at times just plain goofy? A buddy once used to tell me that if you built St. Andrews’ Old Course today, put it in West Texas and charged $30 green fees, people would scream ...

* It certainly was an eventful few weeks for Patrick Reed, who sparked “Sandgate” in the Bahamas, joined his team for a long flight to Australia, ended up with a partner few anticipated (Webb Simpson) and promptly got out of the gates with three losses at Royal Melbourne. To add injury to insult, he actually went into Sunday 0-4, as he lost his caddie, Kessler Karain, after Karain, Reed’s brother-in-law, got into an altercation with a boisterous fan protecting Reed’s honor. (Everyone has a breaking point.)

Having lost his singles match at the 2017 Presidents Cup and having gone 1-2-0 and appearing out of sorts when partner Jordan Spieth split from him in Paris at last fall’s Ryder Cup, Reed was in danger of having his Captain America ID card revoked. But he was a birdie machine on Sunday, making six in his first seven holes, an amazing run, eventually outlasting C.T. Pan, 4 and 2. It’ll be interesting to see fan reaction to Reed on the PGA Tour in 2020. Given his transgressions, he might be a guy for whom Americans root one week a year, if at all.

* Speaking of Reed, he had stepped up in a big way in finally filling a huge void in giving Uncle Sam’s boys a cold-blooded force in cup competition. Pretty much everybody has a good record in the Presidents Cup (Reed is an exception at 5-6-2), so let’s cast those aside for a second. We need players who show up and win points consistently in the Ryder Cup. Reed is off to a 7-3-2 start.

While Europe has so many players who rise in the Ryder Cup – Europe has had Colin Montgomerie, and Sergio Garcia, and Justin Rose, and Ian Poulter, and ... – well, you get the idea – the U.S. might need to harken back to the days of Lanny Wadkins (20-11-3) to find a U.S. player who really was great in Ryder Cup play.

More recently, Justin Thomas had been off to a strong start in his cup career. He was 3-1-1 at Liberty National (2017 Presidents Cup), was a shining light in Paris at the Ryder Cup (4-1-0, taking down Rory McIlroy in singles) and won his first three matches at Royal Melbourne. That’s 10-2-1. Stout. Then he and Rickie Fowler blew a 5-up lead in Saturday foursomes (they tied), and Thomas followed by losing a 3-up lead through five holes and lost to rookie Cameron Smith in singles, 2 and 1. Ouch! Yes, he helped bring home the cup, but not the finish that J.T., ranked fourth in the world, was looking to see. That was a head-scratcher.

* So, what’s the real reason that playing captain Tiger Woods, already 2-0, sat out both team sessions with his U.S. team trailing on Saturday? A couple of players seemed to allude to the idea that Woods wasn’t feeling up to playing physically (Saturday morning’s four-ball matches teed off in cool, rainy conditions, not the best recipe for a 43-year-old with a bad back). Woods made it sound as if he made the ultimate captain’s maneuver, taking himself out of the equation and handing over responsibility to his heavily-favored team to get out there and get the job done. (I mean, at some point, your sons need to learn to mow the yard.) His players dropped the morning session and went 2-0-2 in the afternoon. Assistant Fred Couples (does Woods really call him “Cups”?) hinted early in the week that the plan for Woods was to play three matches, so maybe it all was according to plan. Does a good captain play his hottest player only three times? Anyway, since he never truthfully explained the move in depth, let’s all hope that he tells us in his upcoming book.

* I think the true measure of a captain is how he/she guides his/her team through the team sessions. For Sunday singles, players are on their own, fending for themselves, doing what they do most every day of their non-cup-week lives. Normalcy. That’s why I’ll always contend that Davis Love III (2012, at Medinah, where the U.S. led into singles, 10-6) did a better job as captain, even in defeat, than Ben Crenshaw did at Brookline in 1999 (where the U.S. trailed 10-6, then pulled victory out of the fire in singles). By that standard, Els deserves big kudos. He got the Internationals to Sunday on top, 10-8 (the Presidents Cup has two more team sessions). Ten points was the team goal. They just were outclassed in singles by a more stacked team, that’s all.

* Two burning questions: With a pool of 7.7 billion people (give or take a village) available from which to be chosen, and with golf’s footprint expanding across the globe (last week, we had International team participants for the first time from China, Taiwan, Chile and Mexico), why did this year’s International team sorely lack depth? The average Official World Golf Ranking was outside the top 40. Travel back to 1998 in Melbourne and the winning International side had four players who had been, or would become, World No. 1s (Greg Norman, Nick Price, Vijay Singh and Els). So yes, the Internationals need more Sungjae Ims and Abraham Ancers. They were brilliant. But they could use a few Justin Thomases, Dustin Johnsons and Brooks Koepkas, too.

And while we’re in a contemplation mode, if the U.S. plays a cup every year, shouldn’t we have more established, go-to pairings than we do? The U.S. entered Paris with some solid tandems, so it seemed (Spieth-Reed, Thomas-Fowler, Dustin Johnson-Brooks Koepka, even Johnson-Kuchar in foursomes). Then captain Jim Furyk allowed Spieth to split with Reed (to partner with Thomas, which split a second pairing, and a few dominoes tumbled. For a team that plays each year, we still have too much trial/error (i.e., Reed-Simpson, who finished 0-3). This is golf, not fishing.

* A parting thought: As good of a year as it was for McIlroy (FedEx Cup champion, Players and Tour Championship winner, PGA Tour Player of the Year) and Koepka (he added his fourth major title, and probably should have been POY), did anyone really enjoy a better 2019 than Tiger Woods? Think about it. He won his first major championship in a decade (a fifth Masters, no less) and at least stoked the conversation that the chase to catch Jack’s 18 is, well, worth talking about. Woods tied Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record of 82 career victories with a victory in Japan. And two years and change after sitting on the dais at the 2017 Presidents Cup and stating very honestly that he didn’t know whether he’d even compete again, as in ever, Woods was 3-0 at Royal Melbourne and the winning captain at the Presidents Cup. Plus, now he gets Christmas and turns 44 in 13 days.

As Marilyn Monroe might have sung, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Presidents Cup.”