By Shane Ryan
The 14th Presidents Cup is in the books, the Americans won again after a few nervous moments on Sunday, and now that the victorying/celebrating/exhaling has wound down from Quail Hollow, we can try to answer a few of the most pressing questions that remain. Let’s jump right in, true or false style.
True or False: We must fix the Presidents Cup!
For me, an emphatic false. It always sounds slightly lame when defending the Presidents Cup to say: “Just be patient, it’s going to be great in a decade as the International team gets better,” and I understand the calls to change the format — for one thing, a mixed event would be pretty cool — but if anything, I thought 2022 was a great advertisement for even the current version of this event. Yes, it was a relative blowout at 17.5-12.5 for the Americans, and yes, there’s a talent disparity that is still a few years from disappearing. But the action at Quail Hollow was pretty intense and pretty exciting, especially over the last two days. Even on Friday, in a session that ended 8-2, the last hour of play featured three incredibly tight matches punctuated by a dramatic Max Homa walk-off birdie, and on Saturday and Sunday, we witnessed an International mini-surge that absolutely scared the Americans. That helped keep the result in some doubt until late in the day on Sunday. Throughout, we saw emerging stars coming up huge in big moments (hello there, Tom Kim!), the continued excellence of two American pairs and the kind of passion from both teams you can’t fake.
Point being, this was not the most competitive Presidents Cup ever, and the International side in particular was gutted by the LIV departures, and yet it was still — to my mind — way more entertaining than it had any right to be.
“There wasn’t any talk from either of our teams, Trevor’s or ours, about changing the format,” Davis Love III said afterward. “We’re having a lot of fun, and we love it.”
So the great takeaway from the weekend is that we don’t need any drastic changes. Sure, maybe it makes sense to reduce the opening sessions from five matches to four, and there are other possible tweaks here or there, but in general this is a solid autumn golf product that is only going to get better. To borrow a term from the NBA (and Trevor Immelman), the only move now is to trust the process.
True or False: Davis Love III out-captained Trevor Immelman
A qualified true. What makes this particularly difficult to analyse is that the American team was just so much stronger than the Internationals. Also, Immelman deserves a ton of credit for continuing to build a group identity for the International team, which was evident even when they were trailing 8-2 on Friday, and saw its blossoming in a terrific Saturday afternoon session to make the Cup interesting for Sunday … at least for a while.
But when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts strategy, Love and his assistants were miles ahead. Here’s an example of something that happened early in the week, and may sound incredibly unimportant, but indicates the level to which both sides were paying attention. A weird quirk of the Presidents Cup is that the winning team has the option of deferring the first pick for the first pairings. To do so is a bit of a no-brainer, because it lets you react to more match picks both that day and in the fifth session, singles, when reacting to the other captain’s pick is far better than leading. Tiger deferred in 2019, and Jack Ryan of the PGA Tour did some research indicating that almost every American has deferred the first pick going back through the years. But when I asked the International assistants if they thought the Americans would defer, what was their response? From the transcript:
MIKE WEIR: I don’t know.
GEOFF OGILVY: I wouldn’t know. That would be out of character. I don’t know.
MIKE WEIR: No idea.
CAMILO VILLEGAS: I think either way, it’s fine with us, obviously. But just for me to chip in, I don’t know. Probably won’t. But if they do, that’s fine.
It didn’t strike me that they were being coy, they simply hadn’t thought about it. And again, this is a very minor point, but sometimes minor points indicate larger patterns, and you can bet Love and company thought a lot about it … these guys are considering everything, as I learned from interviewing Love and Stricker after the last Ryder Cup, right down to food and transportation. It’s a well-oiled machine, miles different from the helter-skelter approach of the bad old days of US Ryder Cups in the 1990s and 2000s, and even more importantly, there’s now total continuity between Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup (which has all but forced the Europeans to reinvent the off-year Seve Trophy — to be played as the Hero Cup at Abu Dhabi Golf Club from January 13-15, 2023).
A second telling moment: It’s now team match-play scripture that whether you’re leading or trailing heading into Saturday, you “load the boat”, which means putting your best players out first. Love held almost nothing back, beyond saving Max Homa for the No. 10 spot, but Immelman made the (in my mind) unforgivable decision to hold his best and most exciting player, Tom Kim, almost until the end, and made a more minor error in saving Sungjae Im for eighth. Kim was a spark plug, and you simply have to play him early when you’re trailing. By the time Kim teed off, the US already led three matches and were tied in four others, which was all the projected points they needed to eventually win. The Internationals had no chance to feed off his energy, and he was basically wasted. A captain who paid attention to history, and to his own team, could never have made that mistake.
True or False: Trevor Immelman still did a very good job
True! We can quibble all day about strategy errors, but the International Team were never going to win this Presidents Cup even with the LIV golfers, and considering all the departures, Immelman was put in an impossible situation. His job wasn’t actually to win, as crazy as that sounds (and I’m sure he’d object to it, too). The real job this week was to continue the great work Ernie Els started in 2019 in giving the International Team a true identity and a real team spirit. Immelman was fantastic all week in this respect. The moment that sticks out for me in regards to his team’s spirit came in the final match on Friday afternoon, with the Americans leading 7-2. Taylor Pendrith and Max Homa both had birdie putts on the 18th green, and when Pendrith made his, the entire team exploded in joy … when they were losing by a lot! They still cared, and they were still having fun. Homa made his putt to win the match and make the margin 8-2, but I was still impressed by the resilience and joy of the International team.
The mini-comeback on Saturday, punctuated by Tom Kim’s birdie putt on 18, was also enormous for their self-image and self-esteem. Immelman said all the right things about all his players—touchingly, on a few occasions—and literally all of these guys are going to leave with a positive outlook on the Presidents Cup. If they can iron out a few of the strategic kinks, I really think Royal Montreal in 2024 will be a battle, particularly if the Canadian fans can bring the energy.
True or False: Justin Thomas is Captain America
Mostly true. I mean, I argued this before the tournament even began, so the fact that he went 4-1 at Quail Hollow, only losing a thriller to Si Woo Kim in singles, isn’t going to diminish his case. He’s now 16-5-3 between the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and … well, just read that number again. 16. 5. 3. It’s beyond ridiculous. When Tiger chose JT for his partner in Melbourne, we should have understood what he saw. Now, a couple years later, you can’t help but notice. He had a terrific partner in Jordan Spieth, Thomas joking that he picked up his marker more than he actually attempted any putts during their four wins. But he was every bit as good, and even in his loss to Kim, he posted a red flag early by taking a lead, and surely took some of the steam out of the early International surge. He’s the definition of reliable, and there’s no longer any debate that he’s the alpha dog of Team USA.
I know it’s not the same thing, exactly, but his 72.9 points percentage is currently better than literally every European Ryder Cup golfer who has played more than five matches. And the Europeans are very good at the Ryder Cup! I’m not quite ready to pronounce JT the team match play GOAT, but he’s already getting close, and that’s remarkable.
So why did I say “mostly” true? Because Jordan Spieth isn’t far behind him, especially now that he got the singles monkey off his back with a huge back nine against Cam Davis. Speaking of …
True or False: Thomas and Jordan Spieth are the greatest team match-play pair ever
False, but barely. When it comes to American duos, Spieth and Thomas now have eight wins together and are 8-2 overall. The only American pair with more points is, interestingly enough, Spieth and Patrick Reed, who were 8-1-3 for 9.5 points — more points, but a (very) slightly lower point percentage. There are some legendary American pairs who never got to play in a Presidents Cup, such as Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson, or Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins, and they can still be considered in the discussion for best Ryder Cup pairs. Then, of course, there is the gold standard: Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, who posted an absurd 11-2-2 Ryder Cup record. Their points percentage was 80.0, identical to Spieth and Thomas, but their longevity puts them in a class apart.
Again, though, think how much time these two have left in their careers! Ten years ago, it would have seemed like a safe bet that nobody would ever catch the Spanish Armada. Now, it’s very, very doable, and we could be having the debate as soon as next autumn in Italy.
True or False: Adam Scott is the lifeblood of the International team
I’m going to give this one a Tralse. Or Frue — pick your favourite combo of both. On one hand, practically the entire International team pointed to him as their veteran leader in pre-tournament press conferences.
“I have a lot of questions that I’m curious about because I’m a big fan of Adam Scott,” Tom Kim said. “Who isn’t? So he’s been very nice to tell me a lot of things and kind of put everyone under his wing, and we can kind of feed off his experiences and he’s amazing.”
Those sentiments were typical. On the actual course, though, Scott was solid without being great. He lost the first match on Thursday by a massive margin, he recovered nicely on Saturday with two wins, but when his team really, really needed him on Sunday, he couldn’t get the win against Patrick Cantlay … just like he couldn’t get the win against Xander Schauffele in Melbourne when they needed him even more. With a 16-22-26 career record coming into Quail Hollow, and a 2-3 record here, it’s time to admit an uncomfortable truth — by results, his CV looks most similar to American Ryder Cup players like Raymond Floyd, or even Phil Mickelson. In other words … a little too below average, a few too many losses.
It’s not Scott’s fault that the Internationals keep losing, and surely some of his record is down to weaker partners, but it always feels like he could have done a bit more. For someone who isn’t naturally very vocal, there’s a feeling of letdown surrounding his Presidents Cup career.
True or False: The Tom Kim hype is real
Somewhere beyond true. There’s humour, there’s passion and, most of all, there’s just great golf coming from the 20-year-old South Korean. From splitting his pants twice to wowing his team with his eating prowess to his maiden victory on Saturday morning, by the end of the day he had created another indelible memory with his match-winning birdie on the 18th to close out the session, complete with the best celebration of the weekend.
This may seem like hyperbole, but I’ll say it anyway: Tom Kim made this Presidents Cup. He wasn’t the only great thing happening at Quail Hollow, but his presence brought it to a new level, even with the International team losing. When someone with that kind of energy comes along, it’s a gift to the game of golf. If this was your first encounter with Kim, buckle up, he’s here to stay, and I don’t think anyone’s complaining.
True or False: Tom Kim’s putt on Saturday was the baddest moment of the weekend
I’m going false here, only because I watched Si Woo Kim actually shush the American crowd, Patrick Reed-style, after burying a huge putt on the 15th hole, and then have the audacity to go on to beat Justin Thomas in the important first singles spot. As Evin Priest wrote, it was the latest example of the four Koreans playing like stars, and having a hand in 9.5 of the total 12.5 points their team accumulated.
HUGE fist pump and reaction from Si Woo Kim 🔥
The match is now tied with 3 to play @IntlTeam.
Justin Thomas watches from a distance. pic.twitter.com/zBVBeMEhFa
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 25, 2022
I couldn’t resist asking Thomas about the shush afterward, and he was a good sport in describing his honest reaction.
“Honestly, at the time, I was pretty [annoyed],” he said. “It’s one of those things, I think when you’re in the moment, when you’re on the other side of it, it’s something that gets you motivated, gets you pumped up a little bit. I mean, he hit the shots and made the putts better than I did the last three holes … so I can say whatever I want about it, but he beat me. So he has the upper hand on me.”
This is the kind of stuff that makes the Presidents Cup great, even in a blowout.
True or False: The Canadians need to get their act together before Royal Montreal.
Oof. True. Conners and Pendrith were 0-8 combined, and absolutely killed their team. Conners in particular was painful to watch, and it kept getting worse in an ugly singles match against Xander Schauffele that Schauffele did everything to throw away. Conners out-slopped him, though, losing 1-down to complete an awful weekend. You have to imagine there will be at least two Canadians on the team in 2024, along with a likely Canadian captain in Mike Weir, and yes, they need to do a whole lot better.
True or False: The Internationals are going to win in Royal Montreal
Let’s end with the toughest one of all. Here’s the deal: the team identity is good, the captains are learning, and the players are getting better. Every part of me wants to predict an International victory, because I know how good it would be for the Presidents Cup in general. And yet, I can’t stop being impressed at how thoroughly the Americans have figured this team golf thing out, and they just keep getting better. I’ve come to believe they’re going to win a Ryder Cup on European soil in Italy next summer for the first time in 30 years, so how can I possibly pick them to lose a Presidents Cup just north of the border?
So, gun to head, this is a reluctant false. But mannnn is it going to be fun.