Presidents Cup is one of sport’s great non events
Tiger Woods will add some stardom but contest is almost always a foregone conclusion
Tiger Woods will captain the US team at this week’s Presidents Cup. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
It’s awards season at the end of an alternatively dramatic, controversial, wondrous, squalid and sometimes embarrassing 2019 so right on cue comes a shoo-in for the title of most irrelevant sporting competition of the year.
The Presidents Cup takes place this week in Melbourne. If you want to know what it is – and let’s face it, why would you – this is a biennial team golf event between the USA and a side known as ‘Internationals.’
That’s the rest of the world – apart from Europe. The European angle is covered by the Ryder Cup which mushroomed into a phenomenon after itself being rescued from irrelevance in the 1980s.
On the back of the Ryder Cup’s success, and in a shameless piece of opportunism designed to cash in on a sudden appetite for convoluted hemispheric golf, the Presidents Cup got foisted on the world 25 years ago.
Such an amoral and manipulative exercise got the title it deserved too.
The honorary chairman at the first event in 1994 was former US president Gerald Ford, the man who succeeded Nixon and whose main accomplishment in the Oval Office, according to the late Clive James, was to not stumble and fall on the nuclear button.
That began a PGA Tour tradition. The first George Bush was honorary chairman two years later. So was his son ‘Dubya’ in 2005. A couple of years before that the second president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, got the gig when it was staged in the Western Cape.
Canada has had a go as host since then and so has South Korea. Donald Trump took it so seriously he actually turned up in Jersey City two years ago with a presidential imprimatur which is really all that needs to be known about the event.
The fact that no apostrophe is used is apparently because the event is not anyone’s actual property, a gesture diluted by how no one rational would surely care to have it, although Trump might, given his form on Greenland.
Anyway, reports suggest that even the ultimate cartoon golfer might leave Air Force One at home this week.
That leaves the ultimate actual golfer, Tiger Woods, as the headline act, captaining the US team against a world side, many of whom even golf fans have never heard of in a contest no one gives an intercontinental damn about.
Woods can call on four other major winners as well as top players like Rickie Fowler and Tony Finau. The International skipper is Ernie Els and his side contains players who are barely household names in their own homes.
The outcome is a foregone conclusion. The ‘Miracle in Medinah’ will look like a joke should Els & Co upset the odds and beat the US. Of course hope springs eternal, except when it seems no one’s bothered enough to hope too much.
Say what you like about the Ryder Cup but it can generate v-necked venom. The ‘War by the Shore’ in 1991 was ridiculous on many levels but the bile was bona fide. Some antics over the years have been crass but even the harshest critic can recognise it matters to a lot of people.
In contrast the Australian player Adam Scott had to tell local fans in Melbourne that they ought to root for ‘their’ side rather than shouting support for Woods this week. Having to point that out only underlines how little the Presidents Cup matters to even fans preparing to pound the fairways.
It can’t be any other way though. There’s just about enough European resentment of the ugly American stereotype to inject animosity into something as artificial as team golf. But replicating that competitive friction is impossible on the scale of the Presidents Cup premise.
Not that that matters because it isn’t really about competition at all but rather another example of the trend towards sport as entertainment.
For a while smug European golf fans reckoned this week’s purpose was to give the Americans a chance to win. A more altruistic motive ascribed to it has been to promote golf in other parts of the world, or maybe more precisely, emerging economies.
In reality it’s little more than a massive branding exercise veneered in an ultra-thin coat of supposed rivalry that fools no one.
If competition is about finding a winner then entertainment is about finding a market. Golf has few peers when it comes to generating profit anyway. But the level of fluffing that will go into presenting this week’s tournament as relevant indicates how many corporate agendas are being served.
Woods’ involvement alone is most important of all. He’s the face that sells, still the figure the wider sporting public cannot get enough of. With Tiger the hits keep coming even if it’s a charade like the Presidents Cup. He remains the ultimate example of sporting champion as commodity.
Of course golf is hardly unique in being increasingly exploited as a giant branding exercise.
The ownership of elite European soccer clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City indicates a similar trend, complete with increasingly ubiquitous ‘statement’ signings that often have more to do with off-pitch exposure than on-pitch excellence.
This is an environment where the NFL in America can represent itself as a sports entertainment business. There’s a crucial distinction there from competition which theoretically could allow any sport’s organisation to argue its only obligation is to provide a spectacle rather than ensure fair play.
So in such a market it’s probably only good business sense to keep golf’s commercial train wearily chugging towards an end of year piece of team frivolity like the Presidents Cup.
Everyone will show up in Melbourne flogging profile, toeing the marketing line, and absolutely refusing to acknowledge, under any circumstances, that in pure sporting terms the whole exercise has all the competitive value of a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.
As cynicism goes that truly is presidential.