The Presidents Cup isn’t broken, but if the International team wants to turn their fortunes around, they need to turn to lessons learned from a Ryder Cup legend.
There is nothing wrong with the Presidents Cup except that it has been lopsided just like the Ryder Cup was for decades. Then, when the Great Britain and Ireland team added the rest of Europe, which at the time included Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros, things began to change. But it did not change overnight. It still took several years, and it was a combination of events that helped Europe turn the tide, more than the addition of two golfers.
Ballesteros and Langer, both formidable golfers, were not, on their own enough to turn around a losing record when the team had 12 players. But Europe also had some up-and-comers like, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, and Ian Woosnam, and they happened to appoint a captain named Tony Jacklin who inspired his team with words and deeds. His talks to the team helped those not named Nick or Colin or Ian or Seve or Bernhard to play above their level for a week. In fact, he used to recite a poem given to him by a caddie which he always carried with him which ends:
“Life’s battles won’t always go to the strong or fast at hand, but sooner or later, the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.”
Team Europe had more than a poem, however. They had strategies to win no matter what the team makeup. Once they learned what they had to do, they cookie-cuttered it, and they are still doing that today. They also continually educate all the players on team so everyone will pass down the recipe to success in Ryder Cup. They keep the past captains around, and they groom new captains by having them as assistants. They decline to indicate why they have success.
Europe also plays golf courses that their players have seen often. One can’t overestimate the value of having a home course advantage, and it is one thing the U.S. has not learned to do in Ryder Cup. Would it matter in Presidents Cup? The close calls were in Korea and South Africa, and the lone victory was in Australia.
While the European Ryder Cup victories starting in 1985 included some interesting strategies, they were based primarily on having good play from a core of golfers. Look at these records:
Faldo, 46 matches and 25 points; Langer, 42 matches and 24 points; Lee Westwood, 41 matches and 23 points; Ballesteros, 37 matches and 22.5 points; Montgomerie, 36 matches and 23.5 points; Jose Maria Olazabal, 31 matches and 20.5 points; Woosnam 31 matches and 16.5 points. Current Masters champ, Sergio Garcia has played 32 matches with 20.5 points.
The top point-getter for the US teams is still Billy Casper, who had 23.5 points in 37 matches. Arnold Palmer is second with 23 points in 32 matches. Tiger Woods has had 14.5 points in 33 matches. Phil Mickelson, 21.5 points in 41 matches.
Europe did other things, too. They were smart enough to pair personalities that got along instead of putting teams together with people who did not respond to each other. But sometimes, they just told players what was necessary and expected them to do it.
For the U.S., it took Paul Azinger’s pod system, but it could easily have been a kindergarten teacher who looks at a group of children and can figure out who gets along with whom and why and sorts out the mess of disparate personalities. Some people, like Fred Couples, do that automatically. Azinger needed a system to see what he couldn’t. He needed pods.
Europe is an amalgamation of countries that fought each other for 1000 years, and some cross-cultural animosities remain, but Ryder Cup week, they have each other’s backs. No matter how much tension there might have been between a Langer and a Montgomerie when they were both trying to win the same European Tour event, when it came to Ryder Cup week, they were one-week, blood brothers.
They also had a couple of seasons where it was essential for the Europeans to win to continue to have sponsorship on the European Tour, so it was very much a pocketbook issue, too.
Points system modifications needed?
Then, regarding the Presidents Cup, there’s the point system. There’s no reason to say that the current points system provides the best contest for that event today. Ryder Cup, historically, has been all over the map.
In 1927, the first Ryder Cup, there were 12 points, four with foursomes and eight with singles. There were nine players on each team, including captains. The number of players was expanded by one per side in 1929. After a few more events, it became 10-man teams, a 12-point event, with play over two days, foursomes one day one and singles on day two. That continued until 1961 when Arnold Palmer became eligible.
With Palmer, the event was basically doubled. There were four morning foursomes and four afternoon foursomes on day one, and there were eight morning singles and, if you can imagine, eight afternoon singles in day two for a total of 24 points. Palmer’s popularity caused the event to expand even further.
In 1963 at East Lake GC in Atlanta, Palmer was the team captain, and history has shown, the last playing captain. The format that year was changed to have two sessions of foursomes on day one, two sessions of fourball on day two and two sessions of singles on day three. There were 32 points, demonstrating, if nothing else, that the world could not get enough of Arnold Palmer.
By 1969, when Jack Nicklaus joined the team, the number of players on each side was 12. In 1973, the sides agreed to play both foursomes and fourball on both of the first two days, and they kept the twice singles matches on the final day, but only eight players played during a singles session. This is important to note because it accounted for 16 points of the overall 32. A team could have played their top eight both sessions. (International Team listening up?)
In 1977, Europe lobbied for a point reduction, and the result was one day of five foursome matches, a second day with five fourball matches and a final day with 10 singles matches. It didn’t help. What did help was the addition of Europe in 1979, which allowed Langer and Ballesteros to participate. But Ballesteros proved so controversial that he was voted off the team for the 1981 matches according to a PGA of America media guide. By 1981, the format that is used today was established.
Europe worked their stars to the nub. There were one or two years when a player did not compete until the singles because each point was so important. Because the foursome and fourball were four matches each, Europe could hide the lesser players and play them less frequently or not at all until singles. Meanwhile, Faldo and Montgomerie and Langer and Ballesteros and Woosnam played all five matches. If they could have figured out a way to clone those and play them more, they would have done it.
Tony Jacklin could hold the key
So, looking at the past history of Tony Jacklin’s record in Ryder Cup, the International Team’s first move should be to contact Jacklin for advice. The second thing they should do is consider how many matches are played. It might be that they need a format that allows them to showcase their best players, lean on them while they identify those who rise to the occasion during the event.
With so many International Team members playing on the PGA Tour, they should put several potential pairings together for mandatory Tuesday practice rounds to get them comfortable with that potential partner. In 2014, when Victor Dubuisson debuted on Ryder Cup, Graeme McDowell was tasked with playing with Dubuisson several times during the season to get them comfortable with each other as a potential pair, as McDowell admitted in the pre-Cup interviews.
Should the Internationals go to the old Ryder Cup format of less points? Should they change the number of each kind of matches? What’s the best for success for both sides? When it comes to this, sometimes there are more questions than answers.
Obviously, the U.S. has this locked down, and so they don’t need any special sauce to get a good result, but the Internationals, right now, could use a little of that Jacklin magic, at least enough to make the event competitive right down to the last few matches on the last day.
Can even the legendary Tony Jacklin help the International team turn things back in their favor, or at least slightly more even? Let us know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter @ProGolfNow!