There’s going to be a ton of group think this week between analysts breaking down the Presidents Cup.
The United States has far superior talent.
The International Team is way too young.
The Americans are 10-1-1 all time in the Presidents Cup, so why should we expect a different outcome this year?
But funny and weird things occur all the time in sports. Miracles and upsets happen. That’s why the play the game, right? And anyone who follows golf knows that match play can create absolutely chaotic and unexpected results that makes you scratch your head and wonder “WTF was that?”.
So how can the seemingly unbeatable Americans go down in flames? Here’s a few ways it can happen.
1. The Golf Course Doesn’t Play to the Americans Strengths
The last time we all were saying that the Americans had the superior talented team, they went over to France and Le Golf National stripped them of all their glory. The Americans in the 2018 Ryder Cup were exposed as a collection of one-trick ponies who couldn’t handle a golf course with narrow fairways, penal rough and required precision instead of power. When you either take the driver out of their hands or punish them for inaccuracy off the tee, they weren’t so big and bad anymore.
Now the Americans head to Royal Melbourne, a golf course that is almost impossible to overpower. As discussed in the Presidents Cup Preview, the positions of dog legs, hazards and pinched fairways should force players to opt for fairway metals and irons off the tee and play positional golf instead of bomb-and-gouge.
For the most part, the members of the American squad struggle on standard less-than-driver golf courses. Over the last three years, nine of the 12 members of the United States Presidents Cup team have lower strokes gained metrics on less-than-driver golf courses than their baseline figures. The only players who have positive strokes gained above their baseline expectation are Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar.
Not only does their performance statistically suffer on golf courses they can’t overpower, so too does their attitudes. Many of the Americans at Le Golf National looked absolutely miserable playing there and seemed to be defeated before the event even started. That wasn’t an isolated event either, as anytime the Americans struggle in the team competitions you always see them air their dirty laundry to the media afterwards about internal beefs, power struggles and poor team dynamics.
Some people will say that they got their Royal Melbourne practice in last week at Albany Golf Club, a golf course Ernie Els wanted to try and resemble as Royal Melbourne. While it has some similar characteristics, there isn’t a more night and day difference between the two golf courses. Albany Golf Course is a place that players can pound driver all day long, while they won’t have that luxury available for them in Melbourne. Albany Golf Course is more Kapalua than Royal Melbourne, and the style of play will be much different than what they just saw.
There’s some pressure on the Americans after what happened last year in Paris. If things get off to a rocky start and they let the golf course get in their heads, things could unravel for them quickly.
2. The Internationals Know the Course Better
While each side has their share of players/captains who have participated in a Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, only the Internationals have those who have intimate knowledge of the golf course.
For starters, Geoff Ogilvy is a member at Royal Melbourne and is one the smartest and sharpest minds in the game. He knows every blade of grass of Royal Melbourne tee-to-green, and you can bet he will have all the veterans and rookies fully ready with proper yardages. Everyone on the International squad will know where to hit it and where not to hit it well before the tournament starts.
In addition, Adam Scott loves Royal Melbourne, winning the Australian Masters there in 2013 and has played numerous international competitions on the Composite Course in his career. Same goes for Marc Leishman who has an affinity for the golf course and the sandbelt tracks like Royal Melbourne offers.
Where they may lack in talent the Internationals can make up for in preparedness. That’s not something the Americans should take for granted.
3. The Long Plane Ride
Eleven of the 12 members of the American Presidents Cup team were in the Bahamas last week, and while Dustin Johnson was supposedly “rehabbing” my best guess was he was out on his boat in Jupiter before meeting up with his teammates. They then took a 20 hour charter flight across the globe and stepped off the plane 14 hours in the future. They’ll only have a handful of days to reset the cyrcadian rhythms, and that may get the team off to a sluggish start. Meanwhile, most of the International Team has already been in Australia, so they won’t have to adjust their body clocks at all.
The biggest concern about the long travel, however, is with Tiger Woods. Since he began to have nagging injuries, Tiger and charter travel across the ocean has not mixed. In 2017, Tiger took a flight to the Middle East and allegedly slept on it wrong on the ride over, and that ultimately led to another back surgery to knock him out for the season. This year, Tiger flew across the Atlantic to the Open Championship and definitely did not look like himself, sleep walking through the first two rounds and missing the cut by a mile.
Tiger has played great lately, but are we sure he’s going to be in tip top condition on a tight turnaround after flying halfway across the world, especially when he also will have to fulfill all the Captain duties and have the final say on the pairings? I have concerns.
4. The Internationals Have a Big Edge in One Key Area
If Royal Melbourne plays firm and fast and the winds are swirling, scrambling to get up and down is going to be a big key to whoever hoists the Presidents Cup trophy at the end of the tournament. It will be difficult for the players to hold greens, and off difficult tight lies and deep bunkers it’ll test everyone’s short game.
Statistically, the Internationals have a collection of better scramblers than the Americans do. Six of the 12 players on the International team finished inside the Top 30 in 2019 in Strokes Gained – Around the Green. Only three Americans finished inside the Top 30 in that category this year. The Americans are also more used to scrambling out of fluffy rough instead of off fairway lies, which will up the difficulty for them even more.
This is another example where the Americans will find themselves out of their comfort zone. This isn’t the cushy and soft TPC track they normally tear up week in and week out on the PGA Tour, and if they approach it like so they’ll be in a world of trouble.
5. The Internationals Aren’t As Bad As You Think
Plenty of people will point to the Official World Golf Rankings and say “Scoreboard” when trying to make their point that the Internationals are woefully outgunned. But just because a lot of the team are inexperienced doesn’t mean they don’t have the tools to excel at a place like Royal Melbourne.
For starters, while their Top 4 players aren’t as formidable as they used to be, they can still go toe to toe with any of the Americans they face. Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman and Hideki Matsuyama have excelled in some of the biggest tournaments in the world in their careers, and they have the upside to match all the abundance of talent over on the American side.
The Internationals also have a few players who should thrive at Royal Melbourne. Cameron Smith, Sungjae Im and Adam Hadwin all are known as very good with their wedges and their putters and can be great teammates in a match play format, particularly four-ball. In addition, Byeong Hun An and Joaquin Niemann are superb ball strikers tee-to-green and should do well in an alternate shot format where it’s imperative to keep the ball in play and knock it close on each hole.
There’s a path forward for the Internationals if Ernie Els nails his pairings. But the biggest mistake he could make is to stack his top studs together to try and get a few cheap wins. That’s been a pitfall of many International Captains in years past thinking their lack of talent meant they had to pair their most talented players together to try and put points on the board.
But with so many unproven faces on the team, Els would be much better served splitting up his Big 4 players and pairing them with the rookies to maximize each others strengths. That means putting Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama, who are never known for their prowess on the greens, with lights-out putters like Sungjae Im or Cameron Smith, especially in alternate shot. Or pairing the steady and laid back personalities of Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman with young newcomers Joaquin Niemann and Abraham Ancer to try and put on a two man ball-striking clinic. It also means the Big 4 players should be prepared to play every single session of the Presidents Cup.
There are very little expectations for this International Team being as big of underdogs as they are, so there shouldn’t be much pressure on any of the young guns on the squad. But with smart and bold pairings, Ernie Els could outfox Tiger Woods, give his rookies a reason to believe and steal an improbable victory for only the second time in Presidents Cup history.
Just because the Americans CAN lose the Presidents Cup despite being overwhelming favorites doesn’t mean they will. Check back here on Tuesday for our official pick and best bets.