INCHEON, South Korea – In the frenzied moments following the U.S. team’s one-point victory on Sunday at the Presidents Cup the metaphorical page turned. Davis Love III could feel it.
“I was thinking to myself that this is going to be weird because I’m up,” Love said. “I’m up.”
At the risk of exiting the moment far too early, it was perfectly understandable that Love’s mind would drift to next year’s Ryder Cup, where he will take his second turn as the American captain.
In Love’s defense it was the players who made it impossible not to peek ahead to next year’s matches, where the U.S. team will attempt to end a victory drought that dates back to 2008.
One by one the players, from Zach Johnson to Bill Haas, descended on Love with an eye toward Hazeltine National.
“And, of course, Phil [Mickelson], he came up and said, ‘Don’t forget about me next year,’” Love smiled. “Even [caddie Jim Mackay] told me, ‘My man can still play.’”
But then Mickelson’s inspired play in South Korea was just a single data point for Love from a week that he was only beginning to digest.
Officials and players bristle at the notion that the Presidents Cup was some sort of dress rehearsal for next year’s Ryder Cup, but the reality is after last year’s loss at Gleneagles everyone involved with the Ryder Cup has focused a critical eye on improvement, and what better place to look for answers than the biennial bout with the rest of the world.
It’s why the PGA of America created the Ryder Cup task force and, ultimately, chose Love to take his second turn as captain. So it was hardly a surprise that Love carefully watched how Presidents Cup captain Jay Haas, as well as assistant Fred Couples, ran things.
What may be a surprise to some, however, is who else was dissecting the proceedings.
“We saw some things that we want to be part of the plan next year,” Love said. “If you don’t think the task force is working, Tiger Woods is interested in what’s happening this week to apply it to the Ryder Cup.”
Woods called Love and Steve Stricker, who along with Love was an assistant last week and a potential future Ryder Cup captain, on Friday to talk about the matches and things he thought could help the U.S. team next year. Woods also told Love, according to Golf Digest, that he wants to be involved next year, even if that means being an assistant captain.
While the players don’t consider the Presidents Cup a tune-up for the main event next fall, there was plenty to be gleaned from last week’s matches for those who will be moving the chess pieces at Hazeltine National.
Pairings like Mickelson and Zach Johnson, who went 2-0-1 as a team in Korea, and Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, 2-1-0, became part of Love’s general game plan moving forward.
“Zach and Phil made a great pairing. It was interesting how Dustin and Jordan paired. You have the guy who bombs it and just hits it and then the most organized, structured, game-plan guy we’ve got [Spieth]. They wanted to be together,” Love said. “That was really interesting.”
Even the process of selecting each day’s pairings, which unlike the Ryder Cup is a head-to-head draw between the two captains, was a learning experience.
Each day the captains would gather for the draw with a telling hierarchy on the American side of the table.
“We [Love, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk] sat down on the end and gave our ideas and thoughts and guessed what was going to happen,” said Furyk, who was a last-minute withdrawal from the matches with a wrist injury. “Ultimately, it was just a learning experience from the other guys that have done it so many times.”
For Furyk it was a particularly educational week. Although the veteran is still focused on playing the annual team events he is viewed in many corners as a consensus future captain.
Under the legacy philosophy established by the task force, where future captains are groomed as assistants, last week’s experience was very much a crash course for the nine-time Ryder Cup player.
“Jay and Fred have done it so much. Davis has experience. I think that's what Stricker and I are trying to draw from,” Furyk said.
For Love, who was also an assistant to Couples in 2013 at Muirfield Village, the challenge now is applying the lessons from last week, which has proven to be more difficult than one would expect.
It’s less an apples-to-apples comparison between the two events, considering the U.S. is 9-1-1 in the Presidents Cup but 3-8-0 during that same snapshot against the Continent.
If the Presidents Cup held all of the answers for the embattled American Ryder Cup team then the fix would be to name Couples the captain and use FedEx Cup points to select the teams, but the reality is more nuanced than that.
“Why is it so much more relaxed? Why is it so much easier? Less pressure?” Love wondered. “[Mickelson] made a good point when he said we know there’s more pressure in the Ryder Cup. You can’t try to just turn it off. You know it’s going to be there.”
Maybe the only difference this time around is that the players and primary characters are focused on the Ryder Cup some 12 months before the first tee shot is hit.
It was a telling moment for Love on Sunday in South Korea when Spieth turned to him during the winner’s news conference to ask about the Ryder Cup. Love playfully informed the world No. 1, “You still have to qualify [for the team].”
Many have dismissed the task force as reactionary, a public relations answer to the awkward moments that followed the U.S. loss at Gleneagles. But for those charged with plotting America’s course it’s become a reason to be engaged.
“We’re all talking about it now. That’s the difference,” said Love as he wandered toward the U.S. team room with a single thought – I’m up.