Commentary

Presidents Cup historically a mismatch

Originally Published: October 7, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- The critics were out in full force, lamenting the lineups, picking apart the pairings, wondering what went wrong.

It is the nature of the competition, with criticism and consternation a big part of the deal for the losing side.

That's the Ryder Cup, which, a year after Europe's defeat at Valhalla and year ahead of the United States' defense in Wales, elicits conversation.

The Presidents Cup?

Not so much.

The eighth edition of the event that pits an International squad of players from outside Europe against many of the same Americans who play in the Ryder Cup begins Thursday at Harding Park Golf Course.

And unlike its much older counterpart, the Presidents Cup sort of sneaks up on everyone, without the hype or fanfare.

"The event seems to be a touch friendlier," said Jim Furyk, who is making his sixth Presidents Cup appearance and has played in six Ryder Cups for the U.S. "You don't hear about the animosity, and you don't hear about the friction that you've heard about in the Ryder Cup that's built over the years.

"It can still get a little chippy, but for the most part, the guys that play on the International team, a good percentage of them live in the United States. I see Vijay [Singh] on a weekly basis at home. I realize he's on the other team, but he lives in my backyard."

Of the 24 players in the Presidents Cup, only Japan's Ryo Ishikawa does not have a PGA Tour card. All four winners of this year's majors -- Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang -- are here. So are 16 of the top 25 players in the world.

So there is a familiarity that takes away some of the frostiness, which prompted former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Lanny Wadkins to quip back in 1998, "Our guys went halfway around the world to play a bunch of guys from Orlando."

Back then, the event was still trying to gain some traction, and skeptics wondered whether the event would make it. The Americans had to play the format every year, and questions persisted about whether such a tournament was even necessary.

But international players who had no Ryder Cup bought into the idea, including this year's captain, Greg Norman, who played in it four times and helped bring it to his native Australia in 1998, the only time the Americans have lost. Major championship winners such as Cabrera, Michael Campbell, Steve Elkington, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Geoff Ogilvy, Nick Price, Singh and Mike Weir all have been able to experience the competition, and enjoyed it.

But they have not prospered, and there is a feeling that they need to make this thing competitive to capture the imagination of even serious golf fans. The Ryder Cup suffered until the European squad made it interesting in the mid-1980s, but now it is a can't-miss event.

The Presidents Cup has yet to offer that kind of drama, save for the tie in South Africa six years ago. In seven previous Presidents Cups, the International team has just one victory and a tie. It has never won in the United States.

Then again, nobody is getting hammered back home about it, either.

Unlike European captain Nick Faldo, who was taken to task last year after Europe lost its first Ryder Cup since 1999, it is unlikely that Norman will hear a peep in Australia if his team loses.

If Els misses a crucial putt, there is unlikely to be an outcry in South Africa. If Camilo Villegas blows his singles match on Sunday, there likely won't be despair in Colombia.

"It's a different dynamic," Ogilvy said. "We all sit around and want to win this tournament pretty bad. I don't know if we want to win it any less than the Europeans [want to win the Ryder Cup], but the desperation that they feel ... historically it was the European Tour versus the PGA Tour. That's kind of why it created what it did.

"We all play over here, and the friendliness is there. When the Europeans came over, they had never seen the American guys before. It was [Jack] Nicklaus and [Raymond] Floyd and [Lee] Trevino. [We thought] 'How are we going to beat those guys?'"

"I think the history is such that you really want to beat the other team [at the Ryder Cup]," American Steve Stricker said. "There's no bad blood, but there's just enough competition over the years, and things that have happened throughout the course of the Ryder Cup that I think add a little bit more to it. Everything is just a little bit higher scale at a Ryder Cup than a Presidents Cup. And nothing against it, but I think it just means a little bit more."

So why not better results for the Internationals?

The U.S. suffered a nine-point defeat in Australia in 1998 and tied in 2003, but three of its four victories have been lopsided.

Perhaps the International team has not felt a sense of urgency, for various reasons. And that has seemed to play out in the four-day competition, especially Thursday's opening format of foursomes, also known as alternate shot.

The International side has a poor record in the format, highlighted by two years ago at Royal Montreal: The U.S. took the opening foursomes session 5½ to ½, then went 5-0 in the Saturday morning foursomes.

Only once has a team trailing after the inaugural foursomes gone on to win, and that was the U.S. in 2005.

"I don't think enough emphasis has been paid in the past with the pairings, and enough emphasis in the practice rounds of playing that format and experimenting a little bit with different pairings," said Adam Scott, who has a winning record in foursomes. "Greg has been very thorough in asking us questions, and he's put together a lot of our thoughts to try and come up with some good pairings.

"That's definitely where our focus is, but we are going to have to play good all week to get on top of these guys."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com