International side needs a game changer for a captain


Late last Sunday in the NorCal gloom captains Fred Couples and Greg Norman addressed what some in the press corps consider a foregone conclusion – an encore performance 23 months from now in Australia’s sand belt.

For Couples, the chance to score America’s first outright victory south of the Equator is as compelling as any reason to keep the text messaging lines open with Camp Ponte Vedra Beach, to say nothing of another all-access week hanging with Michael Jordan.

“Hell, yeah, I would do it again. Would I be picked again? I have no idea, but I certainly wouldn't turn it down,” said Couples, who padded an already impressive Presidents Cup record (9-5-2 as a player) with Sunday’s 19 ½ to 14 ½ rout of the “Rest of the World.” “(This was) way better than any golf tournament, ever. It was that much fun.”

And why wouldn’t Boom Boom be amenable to a sequel? He’s got a Tiger Woods/Steve Stricker pairing that swept the team frame and Phil Mickelson who looked as if he could have paired with Jordan for a point last week.

In baseball parlance, American captains now have two staff aces and a five-game series – good odds against an off-form International team or the Bronx Bombers.

Norman’s return trip to the skipper’s chair, however, is not so obvious.

The Australian seemed willing following last week’s matches and sentimentality would favor another Shark sighting in 2011 at Royal Melbourne, where he is a member. But can Presidents Cup officials continue to dole out honorary captaincies for an event that is in desperate need of some competitive parity?

With a few notable exceptions – Tim Clark, Ryo Ishikawa and Ernie Els – the World squad debunked the most worn-out cliché in all of sports. Turns out there is an “I” in team, at least for the International squad.

Robert Allenby blamed Anthony Kim’s social life, the crowds, the 49ers’ pedestrian defense and San Francisco’s marine layer, everything except his own play, for his dismal Sunday showing.

Els claimed it is geography that has landed the International side in a 1-6-1 hole at the odd-year matches, noting that the world side is undefeated in the two matches (Australia and South Africa) played outside the friendly confines of North America.

Yet both players seemed to miss the Great White Elephant, eh . . . Shark, in the room.

Maybe Sunday’s outcome was inevitable given the current form of the World side. Maybe Woods and Stricker and Mickelson were three haymakers too much. Or maybe Norman was too concerned with his wine business and a pending divorce and a faulty cell phone to make a difference.

They say captains – be they of the Ryder, Presidents or Walker cup variety – are like football coaches: too much blame when a team loses and too much credit when they win.

But recent history suggests a creative and determined captain can be a game changer. Paul Azinger was at Valhalla, Ian Woosnam was at the 2006 Ryder Cup and Couples was last week.

Azinger never hit a shot at Valhalla, but he created an air of invincibility among 12 Americans at an event that had gone to the European side in five of the six previous matches. And he did it without Woods, no less. Ditto for Woosnam in Ireland, where he rallied the team behind Darren Clarke with an “us against them” battle cry.

Although Couples’ captaincy was much different from either Azinger or Woosnam, it created a carefree atmosphere that encouraged players to embrace the pressure of these international gatherings, not hide from it.

Jordan's presence in the team room was criticized by some, yet his impact on the overall product was undeniable. For four days 12 independent contractors moved as one, not easily accomplished particularly with competing personalities that don’t always mesh.

“One of the things that I hear all the time is that the U.S. team is not a team. You know, and the one thing that I saw from Day 1 that I walked into this is that these guys get along. They are more or less a team than even in my professional sport,” Jordan said. “When guys don't win and other guys do win, it's not about wearing it on their sleeves or rubbing it in their face. It's about bringing that guy up.”

Word on the Harding Park street was the International team room was every bit as loose as the U.S. cabin. They had a Ping-Pong table, Wii, and all manner of adult beverages. Yet something was missing that goes beyond the International’s hammer-handed play in foursomes.

With the talent margins so thin between the teams at the Presidents and Ryder cups, captains are increasingly becoming the game changers. Gone are the days when a figurehead can toss out golf balls and announce, “Play hard boys.”

Els said it’s time for the Internationals to “go back to the drawing board.” In practical terms that means a captain who will color outside the lines in search of victory.

Among the short list of possible International game changers is Ian Baker-Finch, a four-time assistant captain, and Frank Nobilo, Norman’s No. 2 last week. In the name of full disclosure, Nobilo is a Golf Channel colleague, yet his day job has nothing to do with his ability to captain.

For much of the week Norman conceded the ability to give advice to Nobilo; the New Zealander knows the players and their games and has a mind that plays faster than Rory Sabbatini.

Of course, if the Tour is only interested in moral victories, Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin will probably be available by then.