PGA: The Presidents Cup

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PGA: The Presidents Cup

Winning is not a sometime thing, it’s an all-time thing. You don’t win once in a while, don’t do things right once in a while, you do it right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. Vince Lombardi

LIBERTY CITY, N.J. Across the choppy waters from the majestic Manhattan skyline and beneath the inspiring shadow of the Statue of Liberty, her torch extended toward the heavens inside New York Harbor, there’s an underdog that cannot wait to run again.

The Presidents Cup Internationals to this point, sadly, golf’s version of baseball’s Bad News Bears is a side that has grown weary from losing, losing, and losing again. It is a 12-man huddled mass collectively energized to do something to break its losing habit.

The last (and only) time the Internationals grabbed full share of the cup in 11 meetings, in Australia in 1998, current U.S. Presidents Cup players Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger were 5, and learning the alphabet. Today, as the hard-luck, undermanned Internationals peer perilously above, their record (1-9-1) in this still fledgling and lopsided competition hovers like some giant boulder about to fall.

Nick Price is in his third and final, he says term as the Internationals’ captain, and after a tight, tough one-point loss in South Korea two years ago, he is newly engaged. Recharged. Hopeful. Just as downtrodden Europe players left PGA National in Florida after a one-point Ryder Cup loss in 1983 armed with raised confidence that they could take down the mighty Americans (two years later, they would), Price believes that, for the first time in a long spell, there exists some momentum upon which the Internationals can build.

When he first accepted the job in 2012 for the 2013 matches, Price Zimbabwe-born and a mainstay as a player on five teams (including a team that blew out the Americans in Australia in 1998) was highly enthused. The young charges he’d lead into the matches didn’t share his passion. I said, ‘Man, I’m so happy to be in,’ Price said, and they said (in a bored monotone), ‘Oh, what are we going to do this time?’ There was a general feeling of (malaise).

How do you turn that around?

Two years ago, as the final singles matches filed down the last hole at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in Incheon, South Korea, the cup was there for either team to seize. On that final green, Team USA stole a point when Chris Kirk holed a 15-footer for birdie and India’s Anirban Lahiri lipped out from 4 feet; Bill Haas would clinch the cup with a 2-up victory over South Korea’s Sangmoon Bae, who was headed into mandatory military service. Not since 2003 (a 17-all tie in Fancourt, South Africa) had the International team even come within three points of victory, so in that sense, the result was uplifting. But the loss, so razor-close, was painful. It hurt.

Chris Kirk not making the putt at the last, and Lahiri makes his, and all of a sudden we win, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen said. It was such a close call, and that’s how it goes. It did sting a bit.

Price and the team spent the next few hours in the team room trying to pick up Lahiri and Bae, who’d felt they’d let their team down. Players took turns speaking from the heart. The emotions flowed. There was a closeness in the bunch. Price said he wishes he could have bottled what was in the room that night and uncorked it in his first team meeting at Liberty National.

The morale and the feeling and the emotion that went through the team room in 2015, I don’t think it will take much to pick that up again, Price said. Those who were there, it will motivate them.

This is a different team to any of the teams I’ve been on as a player. These guys are all motivated. Things are changing. As a captain, that’s all I can do. We’re tired of losing. There is no doubt about it. Adam Scott has been on, what, seven teams in a row and he’s never won one? That’s an awful lot of golf shots to come up empty-handed.

Heading into South Korea, the Internationals having lost five consecutive matches since the tie in South Africa, Price lobbied tirelessly to reduce the total points. At the Ryder Cup, 28 matches are played; at the Presidents Cup, up until 2015, it was 34 matches. Every player competed in the first two sessions. Price’s Internationals don’t boast the depth of the U.S. team this year’s side has six players outside the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, whereas Phil Mickelson is the lowest ranked American at No. 29. Price needed help.

Price simply wanted to put his best team forward, and to make the event more competitive. His impactful message to then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem: This isn’t a kids’ soccer match where every kid needs to play. For 2015, matches were reduced from 34 to 30. As a result, the finish (15 -14 ) was riveting for the first time in nearly a decade.

Said Oosthuizen, We feel that all the effort Nick put in to change the points was massive. It was a proper competition down to the last match.

Having rounded out his 2017 team with Lahiri and Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo as captain’s picks, Price has eight players with Presidents Cup experience, seven of whom have participated in multiple cups. They’re a hungry bunch. (The U.S. team has six Presidents Cup rookies, including this year’s U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka, who played well in last fall’s Ryder Cup.)

I think you have to have guys who have lost, Price said, to appreciate how to win.

Certainly, the Internationals are highly motivated, but the team’s overall performance this year has been off in terms of form. Jason Day slipped from No. 1 to 9 in the World Ranking. Fellow Aussie Scott, coming off paternity leave, wasn’t his usual sharp self. Neither player has won, nor have South Africans Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Oosthuizen. (The latter two went 4-0 as a team in 2015.) The 12 Internationals have six worldwide victories among them in 2017.

I don’t think there’s any concern about form, said International assistant captain Geoff Ogilvy. Jason is playing well again. Hideki plays well every week, Louie and Branden will be up for anything. So is Charl. Scotty will be ready to go. He wants to win this thing more than anyone in the tournament, I can guarantee you that.

In comparison to the Internationals’ mission, the U.S. has it easy. The team plays under one flag and has a significant team event in which to play every autumn. Captain Steve Stricker enters Liberty National with some battle-tested pairings.

The International side? Not so simple. Eight countries are represented on this team, and there are language and cultural differences to negotiate. When he made his exit after captaining two losing teams, Greg Norman lobbied for more captain’s picks (four instead of two) and to begin the matches with four-balls (better ball), not foursomes (a format which the U.S. has dominated).

The Shark also said this summer it was difficult to get his diverse team to bond as one in a single week.

I tried different ways of doing it, too, and it just comes down to the players, Norman said. Sooner or later you’re going to be embarrassed when you have your ass handed to you. Sooner or later, you would think they would come together individually to make a team. Once they do that, I think they’ll have a really good chance of it.

Price has tried to inspire his players through a singular thread: Individually, all are fierce and proven competitors who hate to lose. Lahiri, who made his way from India onto the PGA Tour, even takes that concept to a higher level.

When you are playing as a team, the effect is so wide, so large. It’s not just your teammates, or your captain or your vice-captains. It’s also people in my country, he said. I’m from India. Every time I play, a lot of people in India want me to play well. But here’s a week where the Koreans, the Australians, the Argentinians, they all want me to do well. And it’s the same in India. It transcends those boundaries. The ripple effect is so much wider. You ride that energy, but you also feel the responsibility is a lot bigger.

I think the one thing that is the common thread between all of us is that we’ve all left home to be here (U.S.). This is our adopted home, but this isn’t ‘home’ home. We’ve all had to struggle in a way that a lot of our opposition team hasn’t had to do. We’ve actually put ourselves through a lot just to be here. There’s so much that we have in common. It may not be a language, or a national anthem, or a flag, but I think we are all doing something that, in essence, is exactly the same.

Price doesn’t care about world ranking numbers, or that three young U.S. players won majors in 2017, or that the Americans, again, will be heavily favored. His team is tired of losing and highly motivated, and he knows that can be a powerful tool. Against the backdrop of New York, he believes all things are possible.

They want to win the cup, Price said of his players. It’s not a question of beating America that’s a byproduct of it. Maybe Europeans, whatever, they want to beat America. We want to win that cup.

We’ve only had it once in our hands. It’ll be a memory, or week, that these guys will never forget.

(Note: This story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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