INCHEON, South Korea – The last time an International team celebrated a victory on a Sunday at a Presidents Cup Jason Day was 11 years old, two-time captain Nick Price led the way with a 2-1-2 record and the first vestiges of Europe’s dominance in the Ryder Cup were just taking root, with the Continent on a two-match winning streak in an event that had been largely dominated by the Americans.
While some things have changed dramatically (most notably Europe’s Ryder Cup fate), others have become far too familiar.
In the wake of that lone victory at the 1998 Presidents Cup is a legacy of loss during which the International side has found all manner of ways to fail.
Other than a surreal tie in the South African gloom in 2003, the Internationals have lost six of the last seven matches by an average score of more than five points, including the U.S. side’s three-point boat race two years ago at Muirfield Village.
With a monsoon of respect to the rest of the world, the simplest competitive comparison would be the American Globetrotters over the hapless International Generals. But then at least the exhibitions on the hardwood were entertaining.
The same can’t be said for the Presidents Cup in recent years.
With the lone exception of the ’05 matches – that began the final day knotted at 11 points apiece – Sundays have largely been a formality at what has become a biennial blowout.
“It would be nice to finally get that win against the Americans,” said Day, who begins this week as the International team’s on-course leader at No. 2 in the world. “Everyone's kind of fed up with it; that we have been losing for a while now. I think more so Adam Scott is fed up with it because he's been on his seventh team now and hasn't won one.”
That sense of competitive frustration is a key theme in this year’s International team room. While Captain Price has assorted pictures from that 1998 triumph hanging about, he’s clearly not shied away from full disclosure this week.
“We've seen in the past that the Presidents Cup needs more excitement. It needs to be more closely contested,” Price said. “Certainly most of us on the International team feel that that hasn't been the case the last five or six Presidents Cups.”
It’s why Price has spent the last two years working feverishly behind the scenes to change the International side’s fortunes. After months of give and take, the PGA Tour agreed to reduce the total number of points from 34 to 30 for this year’s event.
Price’s argument went that by reducing the number of matches – his pitch was actually for 28 points but that’s a battle for another day – it would allow the International team to field its best possible team.
“Some people think that you're hiding your weakest players, but in actual fact what you're doing is putting your strongest team forward,” Price said. “It's glass half-full or glass half-empty, depends which way you look at it.”
It’s actually a question of depth, which the International team has always lacked relative to the American side. Consider that three players from that 2005 International team – Mark Hensby, Peter Lonard and Nick O’Hern – currently have no status on the PGA Tour, and Price’s point appears valid, although if more points truly do favor the deeper team then the Ryder Cup task force should have started the conversation for change there.
But in practical terms this week, it’s led to a profound dichotomy in team room philosophy.
Price has made it clear to his dozen that this week’s event is pivotal to the future of the matches, while his counterpart Jay Haas has done his best Fred Couples impersonation in an attempt to keep things loose.
“Certainly it's not my way or the highway; I hope I haven't projected that,” Haas said when asked his captaining philosophy.
It’s a telling juxtaposition between captains considering that most U.S. players will tell you that the difference between the Presidents Cup, which the red, white and blue has owned, and the Ryder Cup, which the American side can’t even seem to sublet, is how things are much more relaxed in the odd-year duels.
“We make the Ryder Cup a bigger deal than it needs to be,” Zach Johnson said.
Even Jordan Spieth, who is playing his second Presidents Cup this week, has picked up on the not-so-subtle differences between the two matches.
“Last year's Ryder Cup there was just a little too much thought to go in the rounds ahead, the practice rounds ahead were almost tryouts, there weren't as many smiles in the practice leading up to it,” Spieth said.
That hasn’t been an issue at the Presidents Cup, where the United States has become adept at keeping things in perspective when it comes to the biennial bout with the rest of the world.
Although it started long before Couples took over the team in 2009, that seemingly detached demeanor was perfected by the three-time Presidents Cup captain, so much so that Mark McNulty, one of Price’s assistant captains, referred to it as the “Freddie vibe.”
“People like to be with Fred because he's cool. He doesn't wear an earpiece, never; he doesn't know what's going on because Fred's cool,” McNulty said.
While the International team may be short their own version of Couples, they are aware that what’s not cool is losing. It’s a culture that’s been engrained into the rest of the world for the better part of a decade and a half and a trend Price has worked tirelessly to change.
Price was there, after all, in 1998 the last time the Internationals celebrated and watched as the Europeans began to change their fortunes in an event that had become equally as lopsided, so he knows it can be done.