International Men of Mystery


Presidents CupSAN FRANCISCO – Don King couldn’t sell this lemon. Not with an unlimited marketing budget and the Rockettes making sales calls. Not with a stroke a side for Adam Scott and a two-club rule for Tiger Woods. Not if both Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh went to a belly putter at Harding Park.

Anything can happen in match play, we’ll hear that a lot the next 96 hours, but on paper, the Brawl by the Bay is a bust. That has to change, just probably not this week and that’s a shame.

The best chance for renewal will be in 2011 at Royal Melbourne. For the record, we’ll go four days at Harding Park and see where the American flags fall. If history holds, most will go in the ‘W’ column.

If International captain Greg Norman is looking for a celeb assistant, a la Michael Jordan, he should get Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin to draw up this week’s game plan: anything within a touchdown is a moral victory and defense is the best offense. Go, fight, win.

Angel Cabrera Camilo Villegas Presidents Cup
International team members Angel Cabrera (left) and Camilo Villegas are paired together for the opening foursome matches. (Getty Images)

America loves winners, to a point. Eventually the masses turn on you (See: Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Mike Tyson), and America’s 5-1-1 Presidential line has rendered a once-promising grudge match something of a Ryder Cup test match.

After the major championships, team events are golf at its best. Even last week’s Tour Championship couldn’t touch Valhalla on the “chills meter.” And the Presidents Cup has all the juice to be top shelf – the game’s biggest stars, a classic municipal golf course, contrived head-to-head matchups only the golf gods can deliver at the majors, and Jordan.

The only thing that’s missing is parity. It's been that way since the beginning.

“You know what, they're just going to have to move it south. When we go south, we're good. We either win or we actually tie. When we play north, we have difficulty, so move it south,” said Ernie Els, noting the only International victory (Australia) and tie (South Africa) have come south of the equator.

It’s a fine point, but then what chance does the world side have north of Monterey?

Rename this the 24-man Skins Game and what we have is off the charts, but this event has the foundation to be so much more. So much better, in fact, than the Ryder Cup.

History aside, the founding fathers have this one right – six matches on Days 1 and 2, leaving no one out of the fray, and captains matching each other during each pairing session (I will see your Phil Mickelson/Anthony Kim and raise you a Geoff Ogilvy/Tim Clark).

All that is missing is a little helmet-on-helmet. Two years ago at Royal Montreal the matches were over before most Canadians opened their Sunday morning newspapers, but the event scored a last-minute mulligan when favorite son Mike Weir took down Woods in a heated singles match.

But warm and fuzzy only goes so far. Sooner or later substance, not style, must define an event.

The Ryder Cup suffered from a lack of interest and intensity until the powers pulled the rest of Europe onto the GB&I side. So unless the International side can annex Windermere, Fla., it’s up to Norman’s dirty dozen to fix this.

There is a line between contentious and consequential, and the Ryder Cup has overstepped that boundary in the past. Nobody wants that, not the misplaced aggression of Kiawah or the misguided esprit de corps of Brookline.

But the fire of Valhalla, the emotion of the K Club, the competitive pitch of Brookline, that would transform the Presidents Cup from biennial blowout to must-see title bout.

“It’s important that the matches are very competitive and I have no reason why they are not other than the fact that maybe because we get to play this format every year,” said Justin Leonard, a veteran of seven Ryder and Presidents Cups. “Greg Norman’s job is probably a little more difficult in bringing those guys together and only playing the format every two years.”

It took Paul Azinger’s passion and creativity to break the United States out of a similar Ryder Cup cycle last year, but the problem is Norman is no Azinger. The Shark arrives in San Fran the author of a pair of dubious picks, a doomed marriage and a shoulder on the DL.

That’s not to say the International side is without heroes or hope, but unless Els worked in an impromptu putting lesson with Dave Stockton since the Tour Championship or the Victorian Institute of Sport has found a way to clone Geoff Ogilvy and Robert Allenby the eighth Presidents Cup will be a title bout sans the bout.

A large sign in San Francisco Airport urged travelers to get their flu shots. Norman must have eyed the sign with interest. If only the cure for the International side’s woes came in a needle. Instead, he’ll just walk on them for the next four days, and we’ll all hope for the best.