Presidents Cup needs format shake-up to create Ryder Cup intensity
When match day comes along the enormity of the occasion becomes apparent
International team-mates Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge shake hands with US team-mates Tiger Woods and Matt Kuchar after winning 1-up at the Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village, Dublin, Ohio. Photograph: Reuters
If you have been involved with a few of these team exhibitions in the past you could easily be hardened to the whole concept of “team” in an individual sport and competition in an event that plays distant cousin to the Ryder Cup.
But after a very enjoyable week in Columbus, Ohio, last week for the Presidents Cup even the most anti-team-event campaigners would have softened after a wonderful week of healthy competition.
Muirfield Village, the location for this year’s event, is itself a shrine to the greats of golf and of course its founder Jack Nicklaus. There is a memorial garden discretely located below the clubhouse with plaques displayed in honour of the inductees since the start of the Memorial event in 1976 which is held here annually.
Although the course is only 39 years old, there is a deep sense of history given to the relatively new course due to the memorial garden and the achievements of its owner.
With a certain sense of lack of occasion we played two practice rounds without too much fuss. The most notable aspect being that you hardly set eyes upon your opponents on the course during these two days.
The team chalet was set up to accommodate players and caddies and make them feel comfortable in close proximity to each other. With TV screens, table tennis and video game distractions there was plenty of opportunity to mix with team members and understand them in a different way to the weekly ho-hum of life on tour.
Then Thursday, match day, came along and suddenly the enormity of the occasion became apparent. As we left our team chalet to head to the driving range we could hear the distant beat of the marching drums of the Ohio State Brass Band who were fast approaching. We just managed to sneak ahead of them as they made their way to the first fairway for an opening tune to kick off the matches.
A large crowd had gathered and were already chanting “USA, USA”. President Barack Obama had recorded a message for the opening ceremony the previous night but could not make it to Ohio due to the more pressing problems of a shutdown he was facing on Capitol Hill last week.
In his stead the 43rd president, George W Bush, was in buoyant form on the putting green beside the first tee chit chatting with players and caddies from both teams. I think that the Ohio crowd appreciated the former president more than they would have the current one, given the cheer he received when introduced on the first tee.
The sense of occasion was building to a crescendo as we made our way to the first tee which was surrounded by dignitaries including our host Jack Nicklaus. Both my player, Ernie Els, and his rookie partner, Brendan DeJonge, admitted that their blood was flowing a lot quicker than normal. Judging by the distance that my player hit his three wood off the first tee he was not exaggerating.
In a staggered ordeal that was to last the entire contest we spend the four days starting and stopping, waiting, eating and warming up again and getting back to the hole we stopped on each and every day. Dublin, Ohio, had assumed more than the architectural lead from our own capital – its weather reminded me very much of home.
The result of the intermittent deluges was a birdie-fest that soft conditions create for these very talented golfers. It seemed in our fourball matches that if you were not making birdies you were definitely losing a hole.
The American team have won this event five times in a row now and eight times since the events inauguration. Victory is becoming as much a habit for the Americans as defeat is for the Internationals.
Apart from the obvious mismatch of the quality of the two teams according to their world rankings there is perhaps a lack of cohesion with such a disparate group as the “united states of the rest of the world”.
Of course the Americans have the edge on paper but they must feel more united under the Stars and Stripes of the Old Glory more so than the more recently-contrived emblem of the International side.
On a more personal level there is no doubt that as soon as the brass band has marched off the ceremonial podium each player is very much in competition mode and they really do want to win.
This year’s International line-up was a decidedly southern African affair with five South Africans and a Zimbabwean on the team with the captain, Nick Price, and two of his vice-captains, Mark McNulty and Tony Johnstone all from Zimbabwe.
There was no shortage of biltong to chew on in the team room during the daily rain delays. They created a wonderful inclusive atmosphere for everyone involved and when you lose naturally there are always questions asked about tactics and what if someone else had played rather such a player, would the result have been different.
With six holes won with birdies on the back nine of my player’s singles match against another veteran Steve Stricker there was no doubt about the quality of the golf or the intensity of the competition in Muirfield Village last week.
But it is probably time to shake up the format that will bring the intensity of the Ryder Cup into the Presidents Cup in Korea in two year’s time.