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With an overall scoreline of 11-1 (and one tie) it doesn’t take too much to rock the Presidents Cup. The idea of the matches, which began in 1994, was to give those non-European superstars the chance to take on the Americans in a Ryder Cup-style format and we could feast our eyes on the likes of Greg Norman, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els in a matchplay arena as well as spreading the gospel of golf around the world. The Ryder Cup worked like a dream so why not have another version of it but, this time, led by the PGA Tour.
Three of the first four matches were bizarrely played in the States, at the Robert Trent Jones GC, and all resulted in American wins but there was a crushing victory at Royal Melbourne in 1998 – Shigeki Maruyama being the unlikely leading points scorer with five points – and then a sensational tie at Fancourt when Ernie Els and Tiger Woods played three play-off holes before darkness brought things to a close.
That was 2003 and was probably peak Presidents Cup. The last eight matches have all gone the Americans’ way, the majority of them by comfortable margins and, for the past 20 years, there has been plenty of chatter about involving the women of the LPGA Tour to bring in the might of the Korean stars.
But then the last time that the teams met, as far back as December 2019, captain Els very nearly pulled off the unlikely against Tiger Woods’ side at Royal Melbourne, brilliantly bringing together the different nationalities, continents and voices. There was a new attitude and, though the South African and his backroom team, a new belief.
Even against one of the strongest American sides the International Team led after each of the first four sessions and went into the singles with a 10-8 advantage before it was business as usual on the Sunday and the visitors sneaked home by 16-14.
“Great strides were made, especially in our team play. I really felt that our team play was really the core of our team, and that never was. We never felt like we could play foursomes or fourball together as a team. We did that well,” Els explained in Melbourne.
“We had a plan to get to 10 points by Saturday evening so that's why we were so excited. I followed a plan from 100 per cent and it didn't quite work out, but we came damn close. I think the US Team and I think the people around the world will look at these guys in a different way. I think you guys have seen what can happen. We gave it a hell of a go and we came mightily close to winning and upsetting one of the greatest golf teams of all time.
“If you look at their record and where these guys are at the moment, they are going places; I can tell you that. We do have Major champion winners up here. We do have No.1s, former No.1s, but we also have had guys playing for the first time, and I can only see their future going in a great manner.”
Adam Scott, who has played on 10 International teams but not once on a winning team, added: “It's incredibly disappointing but generally the positivity and being optimistic are what's happening and I like where this team is going, and I'll be working really hard now to be on the team in two more years, if I can keep my game at a good enough level.”
Scott is on the International team this time around but it’s a team that bares little resemblance to the one in Australia. In the interim we’ve had a pandemic and LIV Golf, the latter robbing captain Trevor Immelman of the core of his side.
Abraham Ancer led the scoring in Melbourne and is now part of Greg Norman's breakaway tour and, along with him, Joaquin Niemann, Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen have also gone down the LIV Golf route.
“I'm not gonna lie, it hurts us immensely,” Immelman told Golfweek (opens in new tab). “Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer were two integral parts of the International Team. Louis, because he is so experienced. Over and above the way he plays, he is one of the leaders in the locker room. He's extremely approachable, he's funny as heck, he has an amazing personality and people gravitate towards him in the locker room. So it's a massive loss on and off the course.
“Ancer was a rookie in 2019, he scored a number of points for us and he was like an up-and-coming guy with a little bit of edge, handles pressure well, doesn't back down from anything. He proved when he won the World Golf event last year that he can also get up with the best in the world. So this is a tremendous blow to a team that has always had some depth issues. We've lost two guys that were absolutely going to be there at Quail Hollow.”
That interview was in the middle of August. The biggest kick in the proverbials, though, was still to come. Cam Smith, who was a rookie last time out, also followed suit and, who knows what the future holds, but he might have played in his last Presidents Cup.
Smith scored double the points in the qualifying period of the next best International player, such was his dominance in the game. He’s still in his twenties and, as he demonstrated at St Andrews, he plays golf in a bold and brilliant fashion. In any debate over who’s now the best player in the world he would have to feature in at least the top three and he’s basically the dictionary definition of the type of player who you would want in your ranks to take on the Americans.
In any build-up discussion over this year’s matches one immediate thought is the juicy prospect of watching Smith being front and centre in North Carolina and leading the overseas charge.
Even with the slightly skewed current world rankings Immelman has five players on his side who are outside the best 60 players in the world, half of his team are also rookies. Of those six they have four PGA Tour wins between them.
The Internationals will fall back on the staples of ‘we’ve got nothing to lose’ but no captain has been dealt a worse hand than Immelman. The Americans’ lowest-ranked player is Kevin Kisner and he’s the World No. 25. They have five rookies in their team but they are Sam Burns, Max Homa, Billy Horschel, Cam Young and two-time Major winner Collin Morikawa.
Between them they have 21 PGA Tour wins and then you can throw in the likes of Scheffler, Cantlay, Thomas, Spieth and Finau. Aside from their individual brilliance and the matches being played on the regular PGA Tour stop of Quail Hollow, the established pairings fly off the page as the bulk of this team did more than enough damage at last year’s Ryder Cup where they annihilated Europe by 10 points.
Three of the Whistling Straits heroes – Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka – are also ineligible for this one so, just when we thought we’d lit the touch paper for Johnson in matchplay (he won all five of his matches), he too looks done for in the matchplay arena.
And whatever your opinion of DeChambeau and Koepka they both bring plenty, in their own unique ways, to a week of team competition.
Another huge tick would have been Will Zalatoris entering the team fray, and some pointers to where he might partner up in Italy next year, but his back injury has prevented that from happening this week.
It’s hard to have a sense of how much golf fans are into the Presidents Cup. The generalisation is not very much but the potential seems limitless even if it will always remain a fraction of the excitement of a Ryder Cup. If we’ve learnt anything this year (and for the past four decades) it’s that team golf is the most welcome of guests to a newer-ending hamster’s wheel of medal play.
Seventy-two (and 54) holes has its place but 18 holes of mano-a-mano is as good as it gets. This week we’ll get that but all the buzz of a potential thriller has never felt further away.
Mark has worked in golf for over 20 years having started off his journalistic life at the Press Association and BBC Sport before moving to Sky Sports where he became their golf editor on skysports.com. He then worked at National Club Golfer and Lady Golfer where he was the deputy editor and he has interviewed many of the leading names in the game, both male and female, ghosted columns for the likes of Robert Rock, Charley Hull and Dame Laura Davies, as well as playing the vast majority of our Top 100 GB&I courses. He loves links golf with a particular love of Royal Dornoch and Kingsbarns. He is now a freelance, also working for the PGA and Robert Rock. Loves tour golf, both men and women and he remains the long-standing owner of an horrific short game. He plays at Moortown with a handicap of 6.