By Joel Beall
“How do you fix the Presidents Cup?” It’s such a common refrain that it’s become a de facto tradition for the biennial event.
Though the years change, the complaints remain the same. It lacks the spirit of the Ryder Cup. The competition is nonexistent. There’s no history, the players don’t care, and—perhaps the worst of all—what’s the point of it?
Make no mistake, the Presidents Cup is far from perfect. Yet it’s often noted only for what it’s not. A myopic view, for we take the contest—and its impact—for granted.
Most of the Presidents Cup’s bad press comes from Ryder Cup comparisons. Mainly, its perceived failure to reach the same emotional and performance plateaus of the American-European rivalry. The parallel is fair; those with a vested interest in the Presidents Cup aspire to reach these levels, and to get there, the Internationals need to step it up.
“It’s important,” said Jason Day, regarding the theoretical win. “I’m not going to put it past…sooner or later if we keep losing, you guys will get sick of it, you know what I mean?”
But those who defame the Presidents Cup don’t know their history. In the first 25 iterations of the Ryder Cup, the United States lost just three times. They weren’t exactly contested affairs, either, with the Americans winning most in blowout fashion.
Though the International squad has claimed just one Presidents Cup in 11 tries, maybe a bit of patience is needed.
“Remember, the Ryder Cup was nothing until the Europeans began winning it,” said Gary Player, who’s captained the International team on three occasions. “Give the Presidents Cup time. Just wait. Winning changes everything.” In Player’s assessment, as the President Cup ages, so will its prestige.
To David Toms, veteran of four Presidents Cup, there’s another facet to the Internationals turning the tables.
“For the American side, if they do lose, it’s, ‘I can’t wait to get revenge and get them again,’” Toms said. “It inspires a different feeling. That’s an important element.”
It’s not as if the Internationals are far from formidability: they lost by one point in 2015. Even in the matches where the U.S. won by three or more points, captain Steve Stricker insists it was closer than the scoreboard said.
“It’s always been very close, it always comes down to a match or two every year,” Stricker said at August’s Media Day. “We’ve seemed to flip it our way, but again, it’s gotten close and it came down to the very last match last time.”
The Americans—fronted by Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson—are heavy favorites in Jersey City. But, while it’s hard to match the firepower of the U.S. club, the Internationals are finally starting to acquire the depth they’ve desperately lacked.
Just as importantly, the team knows it’s on the precipice.
“We know that we have a shot at winning if we play well,” said Day. “(Korea) was a huge indication of that, and I think we come into this week feeling a lot better about ourselves knowing that we do have an opportunity to beat the American side.”
“I think what happened in South Korea two years ago really was a shot in the arm for guys like Adam Scott and Louis (Oosthuizen) and Jason who have never been on a winning team,” said captain Nick Price. “The guys’ interest is a lot more piqued than it was before South Korea.”
Of course, to merely use the Ryder Cup as a barometer for success is missing the point.
As it’s so often trumpeted, “growing the game” is the sport’s core aspiration. Aside from the Olympics, no other event puts this goal on such a global platform like the Presidents Cup.
The Masters is broadcast in more countries, and the Open Championship has the most worldwide prestige, but the Presidents Cup’s diverse field gives the world an investment in the proceedings. On this year’s International squad, eight countries from five continents are represented among the 12-man roster.
The opportunity to represent one’s country on one of golf’s biggest stages is not lost on the players.
“Anytime you can wear the red, white and blue and represent the United States of America, it’s an honor,” said Toms, who was part of this week’s Junior Presidents Cup. “Look at the number of players that are vying for those spots compared to how many actually make the team. It’s very, very small. To be a part of that group is a special thing.”
Added Player: “No doubt I wish the Presidents Cup was around when I was in my prime. Look around in the world of sport, people are more passionate about supporting their favorite team or their country than an individual.”
As for the belief that players don’t care, that the Presidents Cup has the same cadence as an all-star game?
“I tell you, if you guys could have been in the team room in South Korea on that Sunday night, it was a very humbling experience for me because the guys emotionally spilled their guts out to everyone that night how important it was to them and how much they enjoyed it and how much they enjoyed the competition,” said Price.
This fervor that has been evident all year, noted Price, stating the players and coaches have been shooting messages throughout the calendar in preparation for Liberty National.
And even if the atmosphere is more relaxed than the Ryder Cup, it can still be a stressful environment, according to Phil Mickelson.
“When Thursday comes and we tee off and we’re representing our country, representing our teammates, representing ourselves, you feel it,” said Mickelson, making his 23rd straight appearance for Team USA. “You feel that pressure.”
Perhaps the apathetic perception held some truth in the event’s fledgling stages. Some of the venues were less than stellar, the competitors still trying to grasp the significance, consequence and reach of the event. However, two decades in, making the Presidents Cup is now a target on many players’ season’s goals list.
“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, to continue to be a part of this, and one of the things I cherish most are these events,” said Mickelson.
“Don’t tell me you think a regular tour event is more important than these team competitions,” Player said. “What makes it special is the team format of the competition, and the camaraderie that comes along with being part of a team.”
Conversely, there are cynics who dismiss these comments, deeming it nothing more than lip service. So let’s strip it down, conceding the Americans might win again, and that a contingent of viewers don’t care about the international growth of the sport. Distilled to its core, it’s a professional golf tournament, no worse than a vehicle for entertainment.
In this fundamental state, the Presidents Cup is a showcase for the game’s top talent, competing in rarely seen team and match formats.
“The competition is so good and the venues are so good, and the fans get excited,” Toms said. “I think people really like team competition. It’s golf at a high level.”
In other words, it’s another chance for golf fanatics to quench their insatiable appetite. An order, like so many others, the Presidents Cup fulfills.