By Nick Edmund
According to the form book and every available statistic, this week’s 13th rendition of the Presidents Cup was unlikely to be a close encounter. Here’s the proverbial case for the prosecution: the International team had triumphed in only one of the previous dozen matches and that was more than two decades ago. All 12 members of the U.S. side are currently ranked among the world’s top 25 players whereas only half of the Internationals are ranked in the top 40. Experienced and star-studded, “Team America” is led by arguably the greatest player of all time and is considered a close-knit unit; by contrast the International team is relatively quite young and comprises seven rookies and players from nine different countries on five continents.
So why imagine that it might be a close affair or that there could even be a major upset? How could it possibly happen?
On the eve of the match some commentators had frankly been clutching at straws. “The U.S. players might be jet-lagged and many could be tired after competing in a tournament last week”… “Tiger electing to pick himself as Playing-Captain was a mistake”… “Dustin Johnson has an iffy knee following surgery”… “Patrick Reed’s aberration in the Bahamas may have negatively impacted team spirit.” Really?
If the Internationals are to conjure a surprise result then it will not be for any of these reasons. The key to their doing well will surely lie in how the players, individually and collectively, approach the venue and the prevailing conditions; how they adapt their games to master the intricacies of Royal Melbourne and how they cope with the way the course is set up and the vagaries of the elements present. Put simply, the Internationals could not really hope to strike the ball better than their opponents this week, but they might just be able to outsmart them.
After the Old Course at St. Andrews, Alister MacKenzie’s Composite layout at Royal Melbourne is arguably the most strategically interesting golf course in the world. The jewel of the storied Melbourne sandbelt, it is famed for its wide fairways that play firm and fast-running, for its distinctively styled bunkers that almost intrude right into the putting surfaces, and for the splendidly subtle contouring of the greens themselves. And then there is the wind—it’s not ever-present at Royal Melbourne, but when it does blow it can challenge the golfer in each and every direction during the course of a round.
An International team supporter looking for good omens could point to the fact that their side’s only victory in the competition (back in 1998) occurred at Royal Melbourne. Now for sure that successful ’98 team boasted a much greater array of talent with multiple Major winners including Greg Norman, Nick Price, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, and Steve Elkington; but then this Class of 2019 is Captained by Els and he happens to hold the course record on the Composite Course—an astonishing 60 achieved in 2004. Just more clutching at straws? Maybe. But let’s see how the wind blows.