INCHEON, South Korea – For Nick Price this is not personal.
With as much objective detachment as he could muster on Tuesday at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, the International captain explained that after more than two years of backroom bargaining he’s cautiously optimistic that the Presidents Cup has turned the proverbial competitive corner.
What other option does Price have? The alternative for the 58-year-old who has now dedicated four years of his adult life to being a captain – and is a five-time Presidents Cup player – is unacceptable.
But on Tuesday when pressed for his thoughts on this year’s matches Price didn’t shy away from the competitive elephant in the International team room that is America’s 8-1-1 advantage in the biennial event.
“I will tell you guys, this is a really important Presidents Cup,” Price said. “I’m not going to say, ‘What if?’ But this better be closely contested. I’ll let you guys figure out the repercussions.”
If that sounds like the International captain is laying down an ultimatum it’s important to understand Price’s passion when it comes to the Presidents Cup.
The Zimbabwean played in the first Presidents Cup in 1994 and was a member on the only winning International team in 1998 at Royal Melbourne on his way to an 8-11-4 record as a player.
Also know that the International team’s loss two years ago at Muirfield Village, another blowout in a long line of U.S. boat races, left a scar. So much so, that when Price was approached to captain the team again for this year’s matches he accepted with an eye toward a sea change for an event that has largely been defined by its lack of competitiveness.
Like Greg Norman before him, Price began lobbying the PGA Tour and commissioner Tim Finchem shortly after the 2013 matches to reduce the total number of points from 34 to 28, which is the same number used at both the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup.
“We seem to think looking at the past, that the most excitement there is in an event is when you have a 28-point format. I think the Solheim Cup showed that two weeks ago,” Price said. “Some people think that you're hiding your weakest players, but in actual fact what you're doing is putting your strongest team forward. It's glass half-full or glass half-empty, depends which way you look at it.”
Following months of internal dialogue over the proposal, the Tour and Finchem reduced the total number of points available to 30 with the caveat that every player must play at least twice before Sunday singles.
For Price, the change is encouraging albeit still short of what the International side would have wanted. “We’re the underdogs, again,” he allowed.
To be clear here, while Price became the front-man for the International push to change the points format he was very much the messenger, a conduit between the Tour and a group of International players who have become increasingly disenfranchised with the biennial blowout.
That at least partially explains Price’s comments regarding the gravity of this week’s matches. It was neither a threat nor an ultimatum when the captain made a not-so-veiled assessment of what awaits if the Americans roll over the “home” team again this week.
“It’s hard for these guys,” Price said. “You ask these guys to give up a week and to play in an event that is not competitive. Any one of these guys can go play anywhere around the world and receive money and they can easily dump this event if they wanted to. Most of them don’t want to do that.”
That sense of apathy dates back to 2012 when arguably the International side’s deepest team lost, 19-15, at Royal Melbourne to extend the losing streak to four consecutive matches.
From Price’s perspective, competitive relevance is crucial to the long-term success of the Presidents Cup and not just among fans, but the players as well.
“This is a huge deal for us right now. If it doesn’t happen and we keep losing guys won’t get interested in it and won’t want to play in it and won’t want to travel,” Jason Day said. “I’m here for the captain and for the guys. We would like to win one. No one likes losing.”
After months of debate regarding the points structure, Price – who is walking a fine political line this week in what he says will be his last turn as captain – sees a more fundamental concern when it comes to the Presidents Cup.
Unlike the Ryder Cup, which is a joint venture between the PGA of America and European Tour, the Presidents Cup is the exclusive property of the PGA Tour.
Or, put another way, “The difference with the Presidents Cup is you have one guy [Finchem] controlling both sides. At the Ryder Cup you have two sides controlling each side. That may be something that needs to change as well,” Price said.
Last month at the Tour Championship, Finchem had an interesting take when asked about the “negotiations” between himself and Price over the 28-point proposal.
“We don’t look at it as meeting anyone halfway. We took everybody’s input, digested and said, ‘Are we going to make a change or not?’ It’s not like you’re here, and we’re there and come halfway,” the commissioner said. “We were making the decision, we weren’t negotiating. We were just listening to all the input.”
The International team doesn’t necessarily need a signature victory to turn things around in Price’s eyes, just a compelling and competitive event that comes down to the final match on Sunday ... say, between Jordan Spieth and Day.
“The absolute perfect scenario for all of us would be Jordan and Jason in the final group, playing the 18th hole, the whole thing tied up,” Price said. “Then who is going to complain about the four-point change?”
There are those who will label Price an alarmist, or worse; but throughout this process his only motivation has been to be a realist about an event that means the world to him and contains limitless potential.
“This is about the long-term health of the Presidents Cup going forward,” he said. “I swear it’s not about individuals. If this is going to survive and grow, it could blow the Ryder Cup out of the water if it becomes exciting and competitive. It’s about making this the very best it can be.”
As Price made his way back to the golf course on Tuesday afternoon he was pressed one last time for what he meant when he said there would be “repercussions” if this Presidents Cup ended the way so many others had.
With a deep sigh, Price shook his head, “This is a very, very, very important Presidents Cup.”