THE past week did not do much positive for either the reputation or credibility of team golf. Not on this side of the Atlantic, anyway.
First we had a tedious and cringeworthy stream of mostly pointless fuss surrounding the not-yet-exciting fact that, a long 12 months from now, the fourth-best course in Auchterarder will host the fifth-biggest event in the game, the Ryder Cup. Then, and far more importantly, came news that almost anyone of note eligible to play for either Great Britain & Ireland or the Continent of Europe can’t be bothered to turn up for this week’s Seve Trophy in France.
Happily, however, news from across the pond is a little more promising. On Thursday, the tenth match between 12-man sides drawn from the United States and the rest of the world other than Europe – aka the “Internationals” – will kick-off at Muirfield Village in Ohio.
It promises to be an important few days for an event that has, so far at least, produced little of the biennial drama that typically characterises the Ryder Cup. In nine previous Presidents Cups, the US has dominated almost completely, winning seven and drawing one. Only once, at Royal Melbourne in 1998, has the cosmopolitan, multi-lingual but invariably disjointed International squad found enough togetherness, or a common enough cause, to inspire victory.
Still, this year could be different if the most experienced member of the visiting side is to be believed. In what will be his eighth Presidents Cup appearance, Ernie Els – one of six South Africans in the side – is hopeful that his young team-mates (only Angel Cabrera of Argentina is older than he and then only by a month) can at least make a decent match of it.
“No one seems to be giving us much chance, which is interesting,” says the two-times Open champion. “To be honest, I don’t think anyone on our side will be even a little bit bothered by that news. Yes, we have been getting trounced in the last few Presidents Cups, but you can’t look back, you must look forward.
“I think we have a really good-looking team and a youthful one. Even if there are a couple of veterans in there – naming no names of course. And we have a great captain in Nick Price. If our guys can’t play hard for such an inspirational figure, then they have a real problem.
“Our team is certainly comparable with any I have played on in the past. There is a lot of talent in there and, crucially, given the length of the Muirfield Village course, they are all long off the tee. That’s so important round there.”
History – sort of – is also on the side of the Internationals. It was in 1987 at Muirfield Village, home of one Jack Nicklaus, that the European Ryder Cup team first defeated Uncle Sam’s nephews on home soil. But to reproduce such a feat, this band of six South Africans (Els, Richard Sterne, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oostuizen, Branden Grace and Brendan de Jonge), three Australians (Adam Scott, Marc Leishman, Jason Day), one Canadian (Graham DeLaet), one Argentine (Cabrera) and one Japanese (Hideki Matsuyama) will have to play more like brothers than the distant cousins which previous sides have more closely resembled.
So far at least, the invisible and intangible glue that successfully bonds teams has largely been missing from the International camp.
“It’s important that we are going to be together for a few days in the lead-up to the matches,” says Els. “We will all be there by Monday evening. So team spirit should not be a problem. Which is key. We all know that this Presidents Cup needs to be at least close if it is to be meaningful going forward. And, if we can win, even better.”
That will be no easy task. The Fred Couples-led American side is, as ever, strong from top (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson) to bottom (captain’s picks Jordan Spieth and Webb Simpson). But Els is hopeful that his own experience added to the influence of Price will provide a positive charge to a team that will start as second-favourites in almost every match. The Americans will know that, too, even if, going in, their comments have so far been typically non-committal and/or schmaltzy.
“The tournament is about promoting the game of golf on an international level,” says Mickelson, an ever-present in US sides since the first Presidents Cup in 1994. “Who loses and by how much isn’t as important as having the guys get together in a competitive, friendly environment, put on a good show or display of golf and have some fun doing it.”
“Both teams look pretty strong,” chimes in USPGA champion Jason Dufner. “We’ve got a lot of guys on our team playing pretty well right now, same for them. I think, as a player, you kind of want the competition to be close and see where you stack up. But, whatever way it goes, the competition is still pretty strong.”
Indeed, Couples’ biggest initial “problem” will surely be that which has dogged US skippers since 1997 – who should he play with Tiger Woods? Already the American press is salivating over the obviously enticing idea of the world No.1 being paired with young Spieth, the game’s hottest prospect. But, given that Woods has enjoyed most success alongside gnarly campaigners such as Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk (absent after a run of 15 consecutive appearances in Ryder and Presidents Cups), the American skipper may save the Woods/Spieth partnership for sometime after the opening day.
Speaking of which, Els is already happy his wily old captain has managed to pull off a minor coup.
“Nick Price has been smart,” he claims. “The first series of matches will be fourballs rather than foursomes. So our guys – especially the rookies – will be able to ease themselves into the event a bit more easily. There will be less pressure on them. But it all comes down to one thing. We need to play and we need to play really, really well.
“As for my role, I don’t want to use the word ‘leadership’, but I think myself and Adam have to step up a little in that respect. I will be available to any of the guys looking for advice. I will enjoy that, especially as there are so many young South Africans in the team. I have helped all of them over the years and I know they won’t be slow to ask me about a situation and format I am more familiar with.
“I can see myself playing with anyone on the team, really. It might even be that I play with a different rookie in every round of matches. But that stuff is up to Nick. He knows I am happy to fill whatever role he has in mind for me. This is a team event and that is all that matters.”
Well maybe. But it would be nice to think this depressingly predictable event may just come up with something a little bit more enticing this time around.
Don’t bet on it though – America by five points.