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What Chance an International Victory?
Anyone who has seen the two line-ups for this week's Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village knows the International team can't possibly win and that the U.S. will go up 8½-1½ in the series that began at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Fla., in 1994.
Anyone that witnessed the 1998 Presidents Cup, however, or the 1985 Ryder Cup, 1987 Ryder Cup, 1995 Ryder Cup, 2002 Ryder Cup, 2012 Ryder Cup or 2013 Solheim Cup, knows how unpredictable match-play can be sometimes, and that the result of this week's competition isn't perhaps the foregone conclusion most people think it is.
While it's certainly true match-play, especially the 18-hole kind, which throws up some pretty unanticipated results from time to time, there surely aren't going to be enough unanticipated results this week for the Internationals to steal the cup from the Americans' fairly tight grasp.
If an out-of-sorts Tiger Woods came up against a red-hot Brendon de Jonge, it's conceivable the big Zimbabwean could put a point on the board for the Internationals that no one saw coming. If Richard Sterne's "A" game went up against Keegan Bradley's "B" game, the Internationals would notch another unforeseen point. And if Marc Leishman were to repeat the form he showed in finishing fourth at this year's Masters, while Matt Kuchar repeated the uncharacteristic errors he made during the final round of the Barclays at the end of August when a 7-over 78 saw him plummet from an overnight share of the lead into a tie for 19th, the Aussie would snatch yet another "banker" away from the home team.
Any one of these scenarios is possible. Two of them happening is a little unlikely though. And thinking all three could come to pass, in the same tournament or even on the same day, is farfetched to say the very least.
Let us count the ways the U.S. team will prove too strong this week. For starters, it has eight players in the top 15 in the world rankings, and its lowest-ranked player is Bill Haas, a former FedEx Cup champion, at No. 28.
The Internationals have just one player in the top 15 - Adam Scott, and three outside the top 50. De Jonge, one of captain Nick Price's two picks (Leishman was the other), is the next-highest-ranked International at No. 63 and, though he has compiled a more than respectable record during his five years on Tour en route to recording 22 top-10 finishes and somehow amassing over $8 million, he doesn't yet have a single tick in his PGA Tour wins column.
The 12 players on the U.S. team have a combined 213 individual wins around the globe, but mostly on the ultra-competitive PGA Tour, including 23 major championships from six winners. The Internationals, meanwhile, have 177 global wins with well over half that number coming on less-competitive tours in Europe, Africa, Canada and South America. They do have five major champions, but just eight major titles between them.
The Americans are also far more familiar with the Jack Nicklaus-designed Muirfield Village than their opposition, the U.S. dozen making a collective 88 appearances in the Memorial Tournament against 52 by the Internationals. Indeed, one of the Internationals - Japan's Hideki Matsuyama - had never seen the host venue before the start of this week.
And while their familiarity with the course will certainly prove advantageous, the American players' familiarity with each other will surely be even more decisive. Woods may not have Brandt Snedeker over to his house for tea and sandwiches very often, and Jordan Spieth may not be familiar with Steve Stricker's pets, but they all move around in the same circles and, of course, speak the same language.
One wonders how often Argentina's Angel Cabrera has chewed the fat on the range or in the locker room with Matsuyama, or South Africa's Branden Grace, or Canada's Graham DeLaet. Yes, the six southern Africans, three Aussies and one Canadian may be able to understand each other, but they don't all play the same Tour.
Price will be able to pair the Africans together for the foursomes and four-balls. Whether they speak in Afrikaans or English, they will be able to confer among themselves and encourage each other. So too the Aussies and Canadian, even if their accents might be wildly dissimilar. But what happens when Price needs to find a partner for Cabrera and Matsuyama? Dialogue and communication in those matches might be limited to a thumbs-up for a good shot or a show of fingers for the club of choice on a par-3.
Stirred by memories of the great Seve Ballesteros and innumerable defeats down the years, the Europeans take about five minutes to create a storm of patriotic fervor in their team room at every Ryder Cup. The Internationals have no such connection to their fellow team members, however, no iconic figurehead from past matches. Creating a tangible team spirit that they could use to elevate their performance is therefore more difficult for them.
Then there's the rookie factor. The Internationals have seven first-timers, the U.S. four. But of those four, three have played in the Ryder Cup which, as anyone who has watched both will tell you, is infinitely more stressful. Any time you wear your country's colors you're going to be nervous and tension may creep in at any moment, but the Ryder Cup is Game 7 of the World Series compared to the opening-day perkiness of the Presidents Cup.
Tim Finchem's refusal to change the format didn't do the Internationals any favors either. Price had called for a reduction in the number of matches played, but the PGA Tour commissioner - who controls the event - denied him, saying no change was necessary. At the Presidents Cup, 34 matches are played instead of the Ryder Cup's 28, with all 12 players on each team in action during Thursday's four-balls, Friday's foursomes and Sunday's singles.
No matter how poorly a player is hitting the ball or how overawed by the occasion he might be, Price or U.S. captain Fred Couples can't bench him at all on Thursday or Friday, and they can sit only two players out on Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. At the Ryder Cup, only eight of the 12 play in each series over the first two days are competing, giving each captain the opportunity to sideline a player he doesn't think is firing on all cylinders.
Price and his team leader Ernie Els were disappointed the PGA Tour commissioner decided to maintain the same format as it reveals the depth of each team, and definitely exposes any weak links. And given that the U.S. team has much greater depth and, you'd think, far fewer weak links, it seems Finchem wasn't too interested in trying to create any parity between the teams.
What else? Oh yeah, the only U.S. team member without professional international team competition experience is Spieth, who not only just completed an incredible rookie season on the PGA Tour, finishing seventh in the FedEx Cup standings and rising to No. 21 in the world, but who does have amateur international team experience in the 2011 Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen, where he won two and a half points out of three. Woods' affinity for a golf course where he has won Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament five times might also play its part in ensuring a U.S. victory.
The Internationals certainly have their backs against the wall this week. One gets the feeling they need to at least put up a strong fight to prevent the Presidents Cup from becoming (if it hasn't already) the total non-event the Ryder Cup was for 40-odd years between the 1940s and late 1980s.
But to do that, they will have to pull off something quite extraordinary, something that would surely go down as one of the unlikeliest results in the history of golf.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.