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Does the Presidents Cup need fixing?

11 OCT 2017

By Peter Mumford

There’s no getting around the fact that Team USA has put together a dominant 10-1-1 record over the first dozen episodes of the Presidents Cup and some of those victories have been pretty one-sided. In most years, the results have been a foregone conclusion long before the first shot is struck, making it difficult for organizers to create much anticipation for the matches or keep fans excited all the way to Sunday.

But is that a reason to change the Presidents Cup or even abandon it?

The bottom line is that since the beginning of these matches, the American players as a group have been just plain better than the Internationals and to make matters worse, the format is heavily weighted in the Yank’s favour too.

We’ll get back to that last part shortly.

The Presidents Cup was conceived by the PGA Tour. It was said at the time that the matches would be an excellent way to showcase international golf and help grow the game globally. In actual fact, the head honchos in Ponte Vedra were miffed that they had no control over the Ryder Cup which was managed by the PGA of America and the European Tour, so creating a product over which they had total control made sense to them. Plus it was another opportunity to extend the PGA Tour brand to a world wide audience.

In creating the Presidents Cup, the Tour obviously drew heavily on the history of the Ryder Cup, which had been contested between the USA and Europe since 1927, except for the duration of the Second World War (1939-45). However, while the founders wanted the Presidents Cup to be as popular as the Ryder Cup, they also wanted it to have its own identity, so in the beginning, they added more matches.

The Ryder Cup features four alternate shot (foursomes) and four better ball (fourball) matches each day on Friday and Saturday and 12 singles matches on Sunday producing a total of 28 matches over three days. The Presidents Cup also has 12 singles matches on the final day but initially added one more match to each of the pair’s sessions for a total of 32 points, then ratcheted that up to 34 points for a few years before backing off to 30 points in the last two competitions.

The format was also expanded to four days instead of three.

In total, the Presidents Cup format was changed seven times in the first nine matches before settling on the current routine in 2015. That had to be confusing for fans that were trying to support the matches. Imagine if the Stanley Cup finals changed each year and tried something different instead of the best 4-out-of-7 format you’ve been used to forever.

The Presidents Cup organizers (PGA Tour) also implemented a rule that every player on each team is required to play at least one match in the first two days of competition. On paper, that sounds like a good idea – let’s get everyone involved - but this is how the format is currently stacked against the Internationals.

In each competition, both the US and International teams are selected based on each team having ten automatic qualifiers based on ranking points and two captain’s picks. The top half of each team generally comprises players ranked in the Top 20 in the world and it would be considered a pretty even match if only those players competed. However, the US team has always had greater depth on its roster and can usually round out its team without going much below the Top 30 players in the world. This year, captain’s pick Phil Mickelson was actually ranked #30.

The Internationals on the other hand don’t have the same depth and had to dip all the way down to #60 and 68 for their final two picks this year. With the requirement that every player has to compete in the first two days of matches and with more pairs matches on the schedule than a Ryder Cup, the weaker International squad is exposed. It has to play its weakest players early and more often, usually resulting in an insurmountable lead for the Americans. It’s a huge advantage for the US and it’s built into the system.

That’s the first thing I’d change if I were running the Presidents Cup. Let the Captains decide who plays where and when. If they want to sit some of the rookies and weaker players until the Sunday singles, that’s OK. It’s probably not a great strategy but at least it’s their call.

Another option is to give the Internationals as many Captains’ picks as they want. If they’re still drawing from the same weaker pool of players that may not help a lot but it could let a team pair two players from the same country together, thereby eliminating some of the cultural and language barriers.

Some people have said that the best way to offset the dominance of the American men is to make the matches co-ed. The addition of the South Korean women, a virtual powerhouse on the LPGA, would go a long way to improving the International squad.

That doesn’t work for me. For one thing it reminds me too much of the old Wendy’s Three Tour Challenge, which was a ratings disaster.

Personally, I don’t think the Presidents Cup needs much fixing at all beyond the tweaks mentioned above. The matches themselves are compelling and team match play is a unique and welcome change from endless weeks of 72-holes of stroke play.

Right now the US is extremely strong but that won’t always be the case. The Americans totally dominated the Ryder Cup for nearly forty years before the Great Britain & Ireland team was expanded to include the rest of Europe. Since then the Euros have held a commanding lead.

Golf in many of the International countries is still in its infancy. India, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia have all had a player on the Presidents Cup team but they were outliers from their country’s nascent golf development. That will change over the years as golf grows in each region. More developed golf programs like South Korea, Japan, Australia, South Africa and Canada are currently strong and will continue to provide the bulk of International team players for a while but 20 years from now, they might be competing for spots with the developing countries.

One question that is often asked is why the Europeans can gel as a team when the Internationals can’t. I think the answer is obvious. The majority of European players all come from a land mass that is smaller than the continental United States and they all grow up playing junior golf and European Tour golf together. They’re friends as well as competitors.

The Internationals came from all over the world, play a multitude of Tours and often don’t even meet their teammates until they make it to the ultra competitive environment of the PGA Tour, which is not exactly a quaint social get-together. There is more of a language barrier and certainly more pronounced cultural differences.  

Perhaps the greatest advantage the Euros have over the Internationals is that Europe is an easily defined geographic region that the team and fans can relate to and cheer for. Much harder to get excited about an amorphous group of countries thousands of miles apart.  

Is that a problem for the success of the International squad?

Maybe in the short term but with increased mobility amongst world tours and more opportunities to play internationally as juniors, a lot of these players will be more familiar to one another as time goes on. And it will be up to the Captains and the teams to create ongoing rabid fan support, especially outside the host country.

Last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series after 108 years of frustration. I don’t recall Cubs fans ever saying the rules of baseball need to be changed to make it fairer for their team. They just endured decades of losing until they won.

It may be the same for the Internationals in the Presidents Cup. Logic dictates that eventually they’ll win. It may take a long time but in the interim, it’s always fun to cheer for the underdog.

Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag.