Headlines will focus on Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker’s decision to burn a captain’s pick on a 47-year-old now four years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, but the truly curious news won’t elicit nearly as much interest.
While Stricker’s call to pick Mickelson may be the sexy topic, it likely won’t impact the outcome of the Presidents Cup. After winning the last eight matches, good-guy Stricker could have picked his pal and assistant captain Tiger Woods, whose golf activity is currently limited to chipping and putting, and the U.S. would still be the heavy favorites to make it nine consecutive wins.
No, the most curious portion of Wednesday’s announcement was how Nick Price, the three-time captain of the International team, put the final pieces of his eclectic team together.
For Price, this year’s picks weren’t that much different than previous matches, a zero-sum game of filling in holes and shoring up alliances, either real or perceived.
For the outspoken International skipper, it’s turned into a biennial chess match featuring vastly different cultures and languages. The International squad will take the field in three weeks at Liberty National in New Jersey under one flag, but in reality Price’s team will include players from eight different countries who speak five different primary languages.
While Stricker was able to fixate primarily on how his potential picks were playing, Price had to look beyond the scorecard and consider the best way to fit his global puzzle together.
Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo was an easy choice. The second-year PGA Tour player was 11th on the points list and finished the qualifying process with a tie for 22nd on Monday at TPC Boston that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Not only did Grillo have the pressure of qualifying for Price’s team hanging over him, he also needed a solid week at the Dell Technologies Championship just to secure his start at the BMW Championship.
“The first pick, Grillo, was pretty comprehensive. All of the guys, the captains and players, agreed. This guy was someone who was on our radar for last year and this year,” Price said. “We’re so happy he’s going to play on our team.”
Grillo also would seem to be a good partner for Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas. The two share a common language and many dinners together while out on Tour.
Not so obvious was Price’s decision to pick India’s Anirban Lahiri, who is arguably one of golf’s most genuine and enjoyable people. But camaraderie and team room hijinks don’t win matches.
At the 2015 matches in South Korea, Lahiri was the only player on Price’s team who failed to win even a half-point, and his play this season hasn’t exactly been a study in consistency.
Although he has two top-10 finishes on Tour this season, the first came nearly a year ago at the CIMB Classic in October and the second came in June when he finished runner-up to Jason Dufner. In his last six starts, Lahiri has three missed cuts and his best finish is a tie for 28th.
“He brings a lot to the team room. He’s got a very positive personality,” Price said of Lahiri, who was 16th on the International points list. “There were many reasons, but the big reason for us is he plays full-time on the U.S. tour.”
But beyond his pedestrian play, the bigger issue for Price is who he plans to pair Lahiri with during the team sessions. In ’15, he lost matches paired with Thongchai Jaidee, who didn’t qualify for this year’s team, and Adam Scott.
On paper, there is a flow to Price’s team. The Australians – Jason Day, Scott and Marc Leishman – would be interchangeable partners, as would the South Africans, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace.
Perhaps Lahiri could fit with Canada’s Adam Hadwin or South Korea’s Si Woo Kim, but what of Hideki Matsuyama, the International’s side top-ranked player and the most crucial element of any potential upset.
If Price’s team, which pushed the U.S. side to the final hole of the final match in ’15, is going to win they will need a big week from Matsuyama, and yet there’s no obvious choice for a partner.
Some suggested Japan’s Hideto Tanihara, who finished 12th on the points list, was a likely pick for just this reason. Tanihara and Matsuyama get along well, and the 38-year-old proved this year at the WGC- Dell Technologies Match Play his potential worth.
Tanihara upset Jordan Spieth, 4 and 2, in Round 1 and added victories over Paul Casey and Ross Fisher after advancing out of group play before dropping a close match in the semifinals, 1 up, to eventual champion Dustin Johnson.
“We looked hard at Tanihara,” Price said. “He played well at the Match Play, but outside of that he hadn’t really played well this year. That was sort of the one time he did play well in the Match Play.
“Hideki is such a versatile player, he can play with anyone. I felt that it was the wrong way to make a pick [based on being a countryman], I wanted to pick a guy on merit.”
Price may see something in Lahiri that’s not in the statistics. After his sub-par performance in the last matches, there will certainly be a desire to redeem himself and Lahiri is a popular addition to the team room.
But in the global Jenga game of getting 12 players to play for one flag, picking Lahiri appears to check off one box while leaving a collection of unanswered questions.