In his first year as the leader of a major team-play event, the most difficult job of United States Captain Tiger Woods at this upcoming week’s Presidents Cup might be convincing his 12 players that the victory is not in the bag.
Unlike the Ryder Cup, which has been more miss than hit for the Americans in recent decades, the Presidents Cup, an event that takes place in opposite years to the Ryder, has been like watching Oklahoma play conference rival Kansas in college football: very one-sided.
The United States team has not lost to the International Team since 1998. And there is very little reason to believe that this could be the year that changes. With Europe not being included in the “International” mix, Tiger will not have to game plan against Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, or even Francesco Molinari, the latter of whom still occupies the nightmares of American fans after he went a record 5-0-0 in the European drubbing of the U.S. team one year ago.
Just how lopsided is this year’s Presidents Cup match on paper? The entirety of the U.S. Team’s 12-man roster ranks inside the top 23 of Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), while the International Team has just two such players.
The highest-ranked International Player, Adam Scott, ranks behind ten players on the U.S. Roster. The United States’ team has 20 major championships to their names, while the International Team has just two, with both of those occurring more than six years ago. More than 50% of the International Team has never before played in a match-play event. The most recent Presidents Cup, which occurred two years ago, was a 19-11 U.S. victory that was not even as close as the lopsided score would indicate. The list goes on.
However, if Tiger is going to develop the kind of unreachable legacy as a team-play captain that he has as a player, he cannot let his players believe the hype too much. The trash heap of the most legendary upsets in professional sports history is filled with athletes who did not think they could lose.
There are reasons for the International Team to have some optimism as well. They will undeniably have the fans at their backs, as this year’s event takes place at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Southern Australia, which also happens to be the location of the only International victory in the 25-year history of the tournament.
As strong as the U.S. Team is, there are some questions, as they will be missing the big-game services of World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, who had to pull from the event due to an injured knee. Another one of their best players, Dustin Johnson, who spent considerable time atop the world rankings himself, is in attendance, but is rusty, struggling, and had to withdraw from an event just last week with knee trouble of his own.
There are also questions of just how effective Tiger can be: in addition to being a first-time captain, the all-time great will also be splitting time as a player, and while his current version is still fantastic, his body still often lets him down, and he played just a week ago in The Bahamas, which he followed up with a day-long flight to Australia. It will not be easy going for him.
The Internationals should also be pleased with who they have leading them. Four-time major champion Ernie Els was as likeable of a player as there is, and seems like more than a natural fit as a team-play captain. He has played the Presidents Cup eight times, and it seems unlikely that his experience will not carry over well into a captain’s role.
Regardless, this year’s Presidents Cup is replete with amazing storylines, and should provide an incredible ending to an incredible 2019 calendar year golf season.
As prestigious as the Presidents Cup has been, it does not have anything resembling the rich history of the Ryder Cup. The Presidents Cup began in 1994, and the 12 past editions has been very lopsided, with the United States team holding a 10-1-1 advantage. The one international victory came in 1998, when great weeks from Shigeki Maruyama, Steve Elkington, Ernie Els, Greg Norman, and Vijay Singh, among others catalyzed a 20.5-11.5 romp.
The most recent edition of the Presidents Cup, which occurred in 2017 at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey, was an beginning-to-end blasting by the Americans. Led by Steve Stricker, who will be in attendance at Royal Melbourne this week as one of Tiger’s assistant captains, the U.S. Team was so formidable in the early team events, that they won 19-11 despite winning just three of their 12 singles matches on the final day. Led by 4.5 points from Dustin Johnson, the U.S. did not have a single player go scoreless for the team, only one player had a losing record, and just two players, neither of whom is on this year’s team, failed to notch fewer than two points.
The Presidents Cup format has been mildly tinkered with over the years, but has remained more of less the same over the past 20 years. There will be four days of play: three days of events that have the players paired up, and an all-out final day where all 24 golfers in attendance are matched up against an opposing player in a singles match.
Day 1 will feature five “foursomes” matches, where all four players on the course will play their own ball, with the best score on each team for each hole counting towards the team score. Day 2 then comprises five “fourball” matches, which is an alternate shot format. Day 3 is a mix, with eight matches, split between morning foursomes and afternoon fourballs. Day 4 is singles match day; the day where most player legacies are created.
The modern format has a total of 30 points up for grabs, so when a team reaches 15.5 points, the cup is clinched.
As far as U.S. viewers are concerned, coverage of the Presidents Cup will begin at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, the far Eastern location meaning an early start in the West.
There is very little that Tiger Woods has not accomplished in professional golf. There is still some debate about whether the 43-year-old is truly the best ever, but absolutely none that he is both the most popular and most dominant. One thing the international superstar has not yet done though: captain a team-play event. That changes this week as Tiger makes his debut as the captain of the United States Team.
However, fans will be treated to more than just Captain Tiger, as he selected himself with one of his four “captain’s picks” for the team, meaning he will also again be Player Tiger, his ninth appearance in the latter role.
A player-captain is not unprecedented; Hale Irwin held the same role in the inaugural 1994 event, going 2-1-0 for the victorious United States Team.
The question though: was it a smart decision for Tiger?
Probably. Playing could take a little attention from his captain duties, but he has at least two tremendously competent assistant captains. One of them is Fred Couples, a three-time United States captain, who went 3-0 in the role, with none of those Cups being decided by fewer than three points. Also on Tiger’s side is Steve Stricker, who lead the US to a 19-11 blowout win in the 2017 edition. Zach Johnson, Tiger’s third assistant, is an unknown in this role, but he is a well-respected 12-time PGA Tour winner who has triumphed at both The Masters and The Open Championship.
While Tiger has yet to prove his worth as a captain, he has been unquestionably valuable as a player. Tiger has a 24-15-1 record at the Presidents Cup, with those 24 wins trailing only Phil Mickelson (26) all-time. Tiger has won six of his eight singles matches, which is the all-time record. When we last saw him in one of these events, he scored a team-high 4 points in the 2013 edition. He was 3-1-0 in team matches, paired with Matt Kuchar in all four, before winning his singles match 1-up over Richard Sterne, sinking the clinching putt in the process, the third time he has accomplished that feat.
Ironically, his one loss that week came against Ernie Els, who was paired up with Brendon De Jonge. He was 2-3-0 in 2011, the last time the Presidents Cup was held at Royal Melbourne, a week that began with he and Steve Stricker getting obliterated 7&6 on the opening day by the team of Adam Scott and K.J. Choi, but ended with him winning his singles match 4&3 over Aaron Baddeley in a four-point U.S. win.
Tiger’s recent form on the PGA Tour has been outstanding. After a series of back surgeries threatened to derail his legendary career, Tiger got back into the winner’s circle when he won the 2018 Tour Championship. Then this past season, came Tiger’s unforgettable victory at The Masters, his 15th career major championship, which snapped a major drought that, shockingly, had reached 11 years.
In the months following his Masters triumph, Tiger went into load management mode, as his bulky back prevented the kind of schedule he played at his peak, playing sparingly, and… not great. However, Tiger has found his better form again as of late, as he won the inaugural ZOZO Championship in Japan in late October, a win that tied him with the great Sam Snead atop the all-time career victory list. He then finished solo-fourth at last week’s Hero World Challenge in The Bahamas, holding the solo lead for a time in the final round before a difficult closing stretch caused a minor tumble. The strong week bumped him to sixth in the Official World Golf Rankings, making him the third highest-ranked player in attendance.
Tiger is playing well, but it is difficult to decipher how ready his body will be in any given week. He stands an excellent chance of, again, being a valuable contributor as a player, but do not be surprised if he plays fewer matches than he has in the past, which might be appropriate anyway, since he is the team captain.
United States Team Analysis
Tiger Woods: Detailed above. His past dominance in this event is unquestioned, and his recent play makes him one of the most feared golfers in the field, but he is hardly a lock for a great week. At 43, Tiger is the oldest player on either team, and has not played this event in six years. His durability could be an issue.
Recently, his outings have been spread out, but he will be playing Royal Melbourne just one week after finishing fourth at the Hero World Challenge, and event which concluded with a 23-hour flight from The Bahamas, not exactly something that is back-friendly.
Patrick Reed: Absolute disaster at last year’s Ryder Cup aside, where he and Tiger Woods formed a shockingly atrocious duo, but he is known as “Captain America” for a reason, and that reason is these team events. He and Jordan Spieth, who did not make the team this year, were a formidable team in the 2017 Cup, going 3-0-0 in team matches before Reed dropped his singles match 1-up to Louis Oosthuizen.
He will likely be heckled significantly this week, largely the result of an incident at the Hero World Challenge last week, where he received a two-stroke penalty for improving his lie. International team player Cameron Smith even went as far as calling Reed a cheater. However, being disliked is nothing new for Reed, as he is not even popular among his home fans when it isn’t a team event, so he may even draw motivation from the boos and heckles.
Reed had not been playing his best since winning the 2018 Masters, a big part of the reason he did not even qualify for this event automatically, but he has looked reinvigorated as of late, finishing in the top 25 of his last 11 starts, including a win at The Northern Trust, a FedExCup playoff event, and a third place finish at last week’s Hero World Challenge, despite the infamous penalty.
Justin Thomas: At No. 4 in the world rankings, the 26-year-old Thomas is the highest ranked player in attendance at Royal Melbourne. Thomas already has 11 PGA Tour victories, with the two most recent coming in August (BMW Championship) and October (CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges).
JT has represented the U.S. in just two team-play events as a professional, but was phenomenal in both. He went 3-1-1 at the 2017 Presidents Cup, playing extremely well while paired with Rickie Fowler, although he did lose his singles match to Hideki Matsuyama. Thomas was the best U.S. player at last year’s Ryder Cup disaster, scoring 4 points for the losing U.S. team, and winning his difficult singles match against Rory McIlroy.
Dustin Johnson: He is in the midst of a shockingly poor stretch of play, something that just does not happen to him, and he has not played since having knee surgery in early September, even withdrawing from last week’s Hero World Challenge. He will also be missing his other-half aka Brooks Koepka this week, but DJ is still the world No. 5, has 20 career victories on the PGA Tour, and has finished runner-up or better in all four major championships.
This will be his third Presidents Cup; he sports an 8-4-2 record, and was tremendous in the 2017 edition, as his 4-0-1 record engendered a team-high 4.5 points.
Xander Schauffele: Basically the definition of a big-game hunter, the 26-year-old Schauffele has shone of the biggest stages in his career, winning the Tour Championship in his rookie season (2017), of four titles in his young career, which also includes five top-6 finishes in major championships, in just 11 starts.
Currently ninth in the world rankings, Schauffele had two wins and two runner-ups last season, with the latter runner-up coming at the Tour Championship in late August. He was also solo second at November’s WGC-HSBC Champions in China, showing that he can compete anywhere.
Patrick Cantlay: A former amateur superstar who initially had his PGA Tour career derailed by injuries and personal tragedy, the 27-year-old Cantlay is both the highest-ranked rookie on the team (7th in the OWGR) and was the highest-finishing rookie in the Presidents Cup standings (5th).
Cantlay nearly ruined the Tiger Masters story, holding a late lead at Augusta before stumbling over the finishing holes. He won last year’s Memorial Tournament, his best result in a a fantastic 2019 season where he had two runner-ups and two third-place finishes among nine top 10s, and had only four starts the entire year outside the top 25.
Bryson DeChambeau: A very cerebral player known as “The Scientist”, the 26-year-old already has five PGA Tour victories during his limited time on Tour, and has spent considerable time ranked inside the world top 10.
However, he has yet to contend in a major, is coming off a disappointing PGA Tour season when compared to the tremendous one that preceded it, and he was a nightmare at the 2018 Ryder Cup, failing to score a single point for the losing U.S. side, and getting throttled in both his team matches, one apiece while paired with Mickelson and then Tiger.
Tony Finau: He might only have one PGA Tour victory, and that occurred at an opposite-field event in 2016, but the 30-year-old has developed a knack for frequently being in the mix, including on the major stage, where he has posted top-10s in all four majors, including a T5 at last season’s Masters, where he played with Tiger on the final day.
Finau was one of the very few bright spots at the 2018 Ryder Cup, posting a 2-1-0 record and obliterating a red-hot Tommy Fleetwood 6&4 in singles. He showed tremendous resiliency at last week’s Hero World Challenge, opening with a dreadful 7-over 79, the worst round of the week for the entire field by three strokes, but bouncing back admirably, climbing his way back to a T7 result.
Gary Woodland: At 35 years of age, Woodland is a bit old for a rookie, but he is undeniably qualified. Woodland has four career PGA Tour victories, with easily the biggest occurring last June, when he outdueled major savant Brooks Koepka to the U.S. Open.
He went into a slump after his U.S. Open triumph, but has come back around as of late, posting finishes of T3 and T5 in two October Asian swing event, and holding the 54-hole lead at last week’s Hero World Challenge.
The Wild Cards
Rickie Fowler: Named the injury replacement for Brooks Koepka, there was a rust concern with Fowler, who had not played since August, but he more or less answered those with a ninth place finish at last week’s Hero World Challenge, reaching double-digits under par for the week.
It is often questioned whether he gets the most out of his talent, as he has just five career PGA Tour wins, and is still looking for his first career major at 30 years of age, despite 8 finishes inside the top 5, including a finish inside the top 3 in all four, but that might not matter as far as this event is concerned, as Rickie is considered great for team chemistry, being one of the most liked and most supportive players on Tour.
A close friend of Tiger, he certainly has the confidence of the captain, and he has played well in this event before, tallying a 4-3-1 record in two previous appearance. In the 2017 edition, he went 3-0-1, forming a great team with Justin Thomas, and then was the American star of the singles day, obliterating Emiliano Grillo by a 6&4 margin.
Matt Kuchar: At 41 years old, Kuchar joins Tiger as the only 40+s at Royal Melbourne this week. This will be Kuchar’s fifth Presidents Cup appearance, and that experience should be helpful for a young team. He has a 6-8-2 career record in the event, but has a winning record in team play. He has been absolutely abysmal in singles matches at both the Ryder and Presidents Cup, including a surprisingly 0-4 tally in this event.
Paradoxically however, he has been phenomenal at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, sporting a 29-10-4 record in the elite event, including a win in 2013 and a runner-up finish last year, so he is not completely inept at match play.
At the 2017 Presidents Cup, Kuchar went 2-1-0, winning both his team matches while paired with Dustin Johnson. With Brooks Koepka on the mend, that duo might be worth another look. Kuchar won twice early last season and led the FedExCup standings for seemingly forever, but has been largely mediocre over the past five months. At No. 24 in the OWGR, he is actually the lowest-ranked player on the U.S. team.
Webb Simpson: A former U.S. Open and PLAYERS Champion, the 34-year-old has experience winning on the big stage. Simpson has also played well in the Presidents Cup, holding a 5-3-2 record in two previous appearances, although he has not participated since 2013.
He was, however, one of just four U.S. players to post a winning record in last year’s Ryder Cup disaster, going 2-1-0 and trouncing Justin Rose in singles.
International Team Analysis
Adam Scott: The elder statesman for the International Team, Scott’s 39 career Presidents Cup matches is only five fewer than the rest of the team combined, and his eight appearances are only two fewer than the rest of the team combined.
The 39-year-old is the oldest player on the team by three years, but is still the squad’s highest ranked player at world No. 18. He is also one of just two players on the team with a major championship title to his name (2013 Masters). His 14-20-5 record looks unimpressive in a vacuum, but it should be kept in mind that the numbers get kept down by the fact that the International Team gets pummeled nearly every year.
Scott contributed just one point in the 2017 edition with a 1-3-0 record, but to his credit, that win was an impressive 3&2 singles triumph over Brooks Koepka.
Louis Oosthuizen: Other than Scott, the 37-year-old Oosthuizen is the only player on the international team with major championship hardware, having taken the 2010 Open Championship in a 7-stroke blowout. The South African, who is the second-highest ranked player on the team (No. 20) has finished in the top 2 of all four majors, having twice lost in playoffs.
A leaderboard fixture in big events, Oosthuizen is the only player on the team with a winning record at the Presidents Cup, having gone 7-5-3 in his previous three appearances.
At the 2017 Cup, he scored a team-high 2.5 points and was one of just two players without a losing record (2-2-1), notching his second victory of the week with a 1-up win over Patrick Reed in singles. Oosthuizen is playing very well as of late, with nine finishes of 20th or better in his last 10 starts, including a runner-up finish at this past weekend’s Emirates Australian Open.
Hideki Matsuyama: The gifted 27-year-old from Japan did not take the step forward that was expected after a 2017 PGA Tour season where he notched three wins and three runner-ups and reached No. 2 in the world rankings, but he seems to be on the verge of figuring it out again. In his last eight starts worldwide, Matsuyama has finished outside the top 16 just once and went T3-2 in the first two events of the recent Asian swing.
A man who possesses a sometimes mesmerizing tee-to-green game (he ranked third in strokes gained: tee-to-green in what was considered a down year on the PGA Tour for him), Matsuyama has played in three previous Presidents Cups, accumulating a 4-6-3 record. In 2017, he did not play well in the team portion, losing badly twice and halving one other match, but he did get the better of Justin Thomas in singles, which is not easy to do.
Abraham Ancer: The first Mexican to land on the Presidents Cup team, the 28-year-old is still looking for his first PGA Tour victory, but appears very close, having twice contended in FedExCup Playoff events, including a runner-up finish to Patrick Reed at The Northern Trust in August.
Ancer also finished fourth at the recent WGC-HSBC Champions, his best finish in a WGC event. He is trending positively, but it remains to be seen if he will be over his head in an event like this.
Cameron Smith: As an Aussie, the 26-year-old will be one of the most popular players in the field, which could be very helpful in his first team event. His only career PGA Tour win was in a lowly-regarded team-play event (2017 Zurich Classic), but he has shown flashes on big stages, finishing T5 at the 2018 Masters, and once finishing third in back-to-back FedExCup Playoff events. He does not seem uncomfortable with large stakes.
Li Haotong: At No. 65 in the world rankings, the 24-year-old from golf-starved China has the worst world ranking of anyone at Royal Melbourne this week, but he has showed amazing promise at times. He has two wins on the European Tour with the latter coming early in 2018 at the prestigious Omega Dubai Desert Classic, where he outdueled Rory McIlroy on the final day.
He also finished solo-third at the 2017 Open Championship after shooting a final round 63 that tied the all-time major championship record at the time. His results have suffered in the past year, but the talent is clearly there, and perhaps this format will bring out the best in him.
CT Pan: The first native of Chinese Taipei to make the Presidents Cup roster, the 28-year-old Pan possesses a miserable major championship record, is playing terrible lately, and has just seven top-10s in 94 PGA Tour starts, but still qualified for the International squad automatically. That is because, while he does not contend often, when he is playing well, he is especially on, as evidenced by five finishes of fourth or better on the PGA Tour over the past three seasons, including his breakout victory at last season’s RBC Heritage.
Byeong Hun An: The 28-year-old from South Korea made the field when extremely popular Aussie Jason Day was forced to withdraw with an injury, much to the dismay of the local crowds.
However, it could end up being alright for the internationals, as Day was coming off a terrible season, especially by his standards, and An has frequently found himself in the mix, with a pair of third place finishes in PGA Tour events since August, and in the recent Asian swing, he finished the three events T6, T8, and T14 respectively. He has not won anywhere in more than four years, but is still playing excellent golf.
Sungjae Im: Just 21 years old, the precocious South Korean was absurdly good in his first season on the PGA Tour last year, making himself an easy pick for the Tour’s Rookie of the Year.
Somehow managing an insane 35-tournament workload, Im posted 7 top 10 finishes and had 16 top 25s. He even played well enough to reach the Tour Championship, the only rookie to do so last season. Im finished one spot short of qualifying for this event automatically, but Els did not hesitate to use a captain’s pick on him. At his current career trajectory, he is likely to make many of these teams.
Joaquin Niemann: The youngest player at Royal Melbourne this week, Niemann turned 21 just a few weeks ago. The first Chilean to make the Presidents Cup team, Niemann was a star as an amateur, reaching the top of the amateur rankings and holding the position for 48 consecutive weeks. His absurdly good tee-to-green game translated to the big leagues almost immediately, as he posted three top 10s in his first five PGA Tour events as a professional.
His 2019 season did not prove to be as easy, but he did get into a groove late in the year and scored his maiden PGA Tour victory in his first start of the new season, at A Military Tribute To The Greenbrier less than three months ago. He is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the International Team’s Presidents Cup future.
The Wild Cards
Marc Leishman: At No. 28 in the world rankings, the 36-year-old Aussie ranks lower than all 12 members of the U.S. Team, but he still finished atop the final International Team standings. Leishman does not perform on the PGA Tour at the most consistent level, but he is excellent when he is on.
Over his past three seasons on Tour, he has notched three victories and two additional runner-ups over 20 top-10 finishes, with some of those coming in events with very strong fields. He has yet to win a major, but has contended several times, even reaching a playoff at the 2018 Open Championship. This has not been a great event for him though, as he has just a 3-7-3 record in three appearances, and was 0-3-2 in the 2017 edition.
Adam Hadwin: The diminutive Canadian is as streaky as they come on the PGA Tour, and unfortunately for the internationals, the 32-year-old Captain’s Pick has struggled as of late after a hot start to the new season. The only member of either team with a round of 59 on the PGA Tour, Hadwin made his Presidents Cup debut in 2017, contributing just half a point as he finished with an 0-2-1 record.