“Starting is half the task.” - Korean proverb
INCHEON, South Korea – In professional sports style points and moral victories rank right up there with participation medals.
As former New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards once opined, “You play to win the game.” Yet while it wasn’t the outcome Nick Price had envisioned or hoped for there was no hiding a sense of measured accomplishment over the International team’s best showing in more than a decade in the Presidents Cup.
“I think it was 1983 when Europe lost by a point, Seve [Ballesteros] was in the locker room, and all the European players were down in the dumps and they were very depressed that they had lost,” Price said. “He looked at them all and said, ‘No, no, don't be depressed. This is like a victory for us. We only need one more point.’”
It wasn’t the perfect script as Bill Haas and Sangmoon Bae made their way up the 18th fairway in the day’s last two-ball on Sunday with the U.S. assured at least a tie, but it was closer than it had been in more than a decade. After five consecutive American blowouts in the biennial event Price was willing to embrace progress, however measured it may be.
It was competitive, it was compelling and, at least on this side of the international date line, it was captivating thanks to an International rally that seemed about as likely as an American collapse as a gloomy morning got underway at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea.
By the time Haas and Bae set out in the day’s anchor match the home team was down in seven matches, all square in three and leading just a single game. Like so many Presidents Cup before it, the 11th edition appeared to be finished before Sunday really began.
But Price’s team, which began the final frame trailing by a point after spotting the U.S. side a 4-1 advantage on Day 1, chipped away, slowly at first with Adam Scott starting the rally with a 6-and-5 rout of Rickie Fowler.
As the day evolved and the rain fell, the personality of these matches swung dramatically, first from what could be considered the Comeback Cup to the possibility of an outright Correction Cup with plenty of examples of the former, including blown leads by J.B. Holmes (1 up through 13 holes), Jimmy Walker (1 up through 9) and Jordan Spieth (1 up through 13) that all went the Internationals' way.
Math and diminishing opportunities, however, slowly made the latter seem more apropos.
When Australian Marc Leishman rolled in a 6-footer for birdie at the last to close out a 1-up victory over world No. 1 Spieth, the event was tied at 12 ½ points apiece with three matches and the fate of the event still on the course.
“It was pretty uncomfortable at times today but the guys stepped up and played amazing golf when they had to,” U.S. captain Jay Haas said. “There were no individuals; everybody came together as a team; a moment I'll never forget.”
Branden Grace, who finished with a 5-0-0 record, closed out Matt Kuchar (2 and 1), and the first of many dramatic swings came on the 18th hole when Chris Kirk converted from 15 feet for birdie and Anirban Lahiri missed his birdie attempt from 4 feet for a U.S. point that assured a tie.
That left the outcome to Bill Haas and Bae, the lone South Korean in the event who played his final professional event for two years as he prepares to report next month for mandatory military service.
“Win one for your mom. Your mom deserves this,” the captain said walking down the 18th fairway to Bill Haas, who secured the winning point when Bae failed to reach the green with his third shot (a misplayed chip shot) and a 15 ½ to 14 ½ U.S. victory.
Price will certainly suffer the slings and arrows of armchair quarterbacks everywhere for many of his moves, a list that likely starts with his decision to sit Bae on Day 1 and his choice of Thursday’s opening format, alternate shot, which he freely admitted is the International team’s Achilles’ heel.
But if 2015 becomes a turning point for an event mired in an identity crisis born from competitive irrelevance, then it will be Price who will be remembered as the conduit of change.
“There's no doubt this team was much more invested in this event than any team I've ever been on before,” said Adam Scott, who was playing his seventh Presidents Cup. “They made the right decisions, and the proof was in the pudding today with how it all panned out.”
It’s the ultimate act of self-indulgence and hindsight, but just imagine if PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem wouldn’t have bargained Price down to a four-point format reduction instead of the six-point change the captain had lobbied for?
That will be the next International captain’s problem, but at least Price’s successor won’t have to wrestle with a general sense of cynicism from a team that has found itself on the wrong side of too many boat races.
This time the indifference that had largely defined Presidents Cup Sundays since 2005, when the two sides began the final day tied at 11 points apiece, was replaced by a rare level of interest born from the competitive reality that Sunday’s finish was just the second time, and the first since 2003, that the cup was decided on the final hole.
As wind and rain whipped the closing ceremony the grin on Price’s face was unmistakable. It wasn’t a perfect world, but the problems of the past suddenly seemed less insurmountable.
“At the end of hardship comes happiness.”
- Korean proverb