JERSEY CITY, N.J.– The views will be breathtaking and the crowds, if even the most conservative estimates are reached, will be rowdy and ready when the Presidents Cup begins on Thursday at Liberty National.
If there’s one constant in this neck of the tri-state area, success depends on three elements – location, location, location.
It’s why the PGA Tour enthusiastically embraced the concept of a “City Cup.” Liberty National may not have been the most popular course among Tour types, but it is unquestionably prime real estate with sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline awaiting around every dogleg.
Unfortunately, idyllic views and raucous fans are only a single element of a successful competition, no matter the sport. The play on the field will ultimately dictate the success or failure of the 12th Presidents Cup. It’s why you play, and why Nick Price, the loquacious three-time International captain, talks like this is his side’s final stand.
“I’d like to think that Korea was a turning point. It was like a Wednesday, a hump day, in the Presidents Cup,” said Price, referencing, as he has regularly, the one-point loss his team endured two years ago in South Korea. “We’ve struggled, struggled, struggled, and now all of a sudden is it going to take off? That’s what we’re all hoping for. Is it going to be the competition we all want to play in and compete for?”
This is not a death notice. There will be a Presidents Cup in 2019 and ’21 and ’23. The Tour is far too invested in the biennial matches to let them go quietly, but it seems the matches have reached a tipping point and not just for Price and the International side.
On some level, the Presidents Cup suffers by comparison; always shoved into the shadow of the Ryder Cup, which itself was transformed from a one-sided affair by the American victory last year at Hazeltine National.
The Ryder Cup is the benchmark for all other team competitions, with each edition bigger and more compelling than the last. The U.S. loss in 2012 at Medinah set record attendance records, which were summarily broken by the mass of humanity that ringed the course last year in Minnesota.
Players spend two years thinking about the Ryder Cup, answering questions about the Ryder Cup, fixating on the Ryder Cup. Just last week at the Tour Championship, England’s Paul Casey, who isn’t even eligible to play next year’s event, was asked about the 2018 matches in Paris.
Even those involved in this week’s matches concede, the Presidents Cup is a victim of association and the unrealistic expectations that the Ryder Cup creates.
“This doesn't have the same sense of hostility as the Ryder Cup and I think some people think outside of Europe and America, that because of that, it's less important,” International assistant captain Tony Johnstone said. “You can't fast-track tradition and heritage and I think the Presidents Cup is getting there, and it's just going to grow and grow and grow.”
Perhaps this week’s event, energized by the venue, is bound for bigger and better finishes. But the only way that happens is if the Internationals can do what few outside the blue and gold team room think is possible – win.
International futility has now reached 1-9-1 in the matches and other than the ’15 bout, five of the last six U.S. victories have been by three or more points, which is a statistical blowout in these kinds of team events.
All one needs to see to get a feel for the International team’s road ahead are Thursday’s foursome matches. In the day’s second match, Adam Scott, who didn’t advance past the second playoff event this year, and Jhonattan Vegas, a rookie, will play Dustin Johnson, a four-time winner this year on Tour, and Matt Kuchar, who is playing his eighth U.S. team event this week.
Match 3 doesn’t look any better for the away team, with rookies Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo set to play Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who proved unstoppable at last year’s Ryder Cup.
Every two years, the European Ryder Cup team receives an unexpected boost from a player most U.S. fans couldn’t pick out of a line up (see Pieters, Thomas 2016 Ryder Cup). It’s hard to look down Price’s scorecard and see a surprising savior this week.
On Tuesday, Phil Mickelson – who has played in every Presidents Cup – was asked if, for the good of the event, it may be better if the International team were to win this week’s matches. The competitive DNA of Lefty would never allow that kind of altruistic thinking, but there was a telling pause before he answered.
“I don't think so, no,” Mickelson said. “We're not there yet, no. We feel it. We know once the door opens how good the players are on the International team that could lead to more losses, so we've got to continue to be ready, play sharp, and play our best because if you look at the talent on the International team, it is strong and it is deep, and if we open the door and give them an opportunity, it will bite us.”
That would be the answer one would expect. Although technically an exhibition, players at this level have no interest in participation medals. But the question remains valid, if not now then when?
Price and his eclectic dozen need a win, the event needs a win, and not even the most picturesque panorama can change that competitive reality.