Brought in as an assistant captain and seen by many, including current captain Nick Price, as the probable skipper for the 2019 event in Australia, he will likely be tasked with turning around a trend that only grew more lopsided this week in the shadow of Lady Liberty.
“The future of the cup is important. We want to have it as competitive as we can,” Els said. “So we have to go back to the drawing board.”
It’s a common goal, one shared by the other 16 men sitting at the podium who at times seemed helpless in the face of an American juggernaut that won 19-11 and nearly clinched the biennial matches a full day in advance. The International team’s overall record now drops to 1-10-1, and 21 years will have passed since their lone victory the next time the cup is up for grabs at Royal Melbourne.
In all likelihood, it’s also a goal shared by many PGA Tour executives. This event, after all, is the Tour’s property, created as a complement to the PGA of America-run Ryder Cup. Blowouts like the one seen this week do little to alter the perception that this event pales in comparison to the high-octane spectacle played in the even-numbered years.
But while the goal is shared by several parties, creating productive change for the International squad is easier said than done.
Consider the uphill battle Price faced simply to get the total points trimmed from 34 to 30. It took nearly two years of lobbying to Tour officials before the change was administered for the 2015 matches, leading to a narrow American victory. It appeared to be a step in the right direction for an event desperate to create any hint of a truly back-and-forth rivalry.
But this week at Liberty National, the cup could have been contested across three points or 30, and the outcome likely wouldn’t have wavered. The Americans were the better team, playing the better golf, from the first man on the roster to the 12th.
“I think we went up against one of the best teams that’s been put forward,” said Adam Scott, who has now been on eight squads without tasting team victory. “I think we have to do even more before we play again in two years.”
What’s more daunting for the likes of Els, Price, Scott and others is the fact that this U.S. team likely won’t slow down anytime soon. The youthful nucleus of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler have decades ahead of them and should only gain more experience and poise in the intervening years.
The International core, by comparison, is only getting older. Scott will be 39 for the matches at Royal Melbourne while veterans like Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman will all be on the wrong side of 35.
Reflecting on his third straight loss as captain, Price went back to familiar refrains: shortening the available points, putting lineups in secretly rather than allowing captains to plot one matchup at a time.
“We play these team events every second year, and the U.S. team plays every year. So they are a little bit more, I don’t want to say prepared, but they kind of – there’s not as big surprises on their team,” Price said. “I think to put pairings together with a very diverse group as we have, is our challenge.”
Unfortunately for Price, or whoever takes the earpiece from him, that challenge likely won’t get any easier in the coming years. The language barriers in play, especially with Hideki Matsuyama who struggled this week despite being the top-ranked player on his team, won’t disappear overnight.
The depth issues aren’t going away, either. While all 12 on this year’s team are PGA Tour regulars, captain’s pick contenders like Hideto Tanihara and Yuta Ikeda play most of their golf elsewhere, making it difficult to rely on any qualification system beyond the Official World Golf Rankings.
While the Americans have promising prospects on the horizon like Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Ollie Schniederjans, the International cupboard seems much more sparse in comparison. It’s unlikely that any of the players ranked in the top 100 left off this year’s squad – a diverse group that includes guys like Haotong Li, Byeong-Hun An and Dylan Frittelli – would have done much to slow down the American onslaught.
“That’s the hardest task for us, new guys in and out every two years with less and less experience in this kind of format is hard,” Scott said. “We struggled in the team aspect of the matches this week. But we also played maybe the most on-form United States team that I can remember.”
Team golf tends to be a cyclical venture, and after the competition closed many compared the current International struggles to those faced by U.S. Ryder Cup teams earlier this century. But there is no infrastructure in place to create an International task force, nor could they easily identify one singular factor that might unite a diverse contingent in the face of an opponent that seems only to be growing stronger.
As a result, a table full of players and assistants sat next to Price and talked about the need for change and reform, the ethereal desire to make this thing competitive after yet another lopsided loss. But they also struggled to pinpoint the concrete factors that might spark formative change.
At one point, Els was again asked what could be done to turn around the fate of the Internationals. But before he could answer, Scott cut him off.
“Win,” Scott said.
Perhaps it is that simple. But the Internationals won’t get another crack at the cup for two more years, and right now they certainly seem further from victory than they appeared to be when they first boarded a ferry for Liberty National.