How the International team can win the Presidents Cup


MELBOURNE, Australia -- Once again, the situation looks bleak. Unlike the Ryder Cup, which has seemingly delivered drama for the better part of three decades, the Presidents Cup has yet to come close.

The Americans lead the series 10-1-1. The rout was so extensive two years ago at Liberty National that the U.S. nearly clinched on Saturday. The International team's lone victory came 21 years ago, when Greg Norman was nearing the end of his career and Tiger Woods was just 22 years old.

Seven straight defeats for the International side has made many question the relevancy of the competition. With the Americans having all 12 players ranked among the top 23 in the world, another easy victory seems certain this week at Royal Melbourne.

But wait.

Golf is a funny game, and 18-hole match play is a great equalizer. So is a 26-hour journey halfway around the world that has left the Americans a bit out of sorts. It might not be enough to mean defeat, but it helps make a case for the possibility.

And so, here is how the International side can make this far more compelling than expected.

The Travel

By all accounts, the journey from Nassau, Bahamas, to Melbourne for the American team was a good one, all things considered. U.S. captain Tiger Woods referred to it as "26 hours in a luxurious tin can.'' It seems the players, their caddies and family made the best of the journey.

There was some card playing, some revelry, some trash talking. But once the plane took off after a lengthy refueling stop in Mexico, U.S. captain Tiger Woods decried that no more alcohol would be served, suggesting rest.

But 26 hours is 26 hours. The players and their entourage arrived late Monday morning in Australia. Almost on cue, Woods hit two balls into the Yarra River as part of a kick-off event. He didn't mean to do so.

There's a reason players often arrive early at events when dealing with a lengthy time change. They need time to acclimate. And having less than three days to do so is not ideal. It was a factor last year at the Ryder Cup, and that competition started a day later and involved a much shorter journey.

Everyone on the U.S. side but Dustin Johnson played last week at the Hero World Challenge. While playing is good, the quick turnaround is not. Meanwhile, seven of the 12 members of the International team competed last week at the Australian Open in Sydney.

The Course

Royal Melbourne Golf Club is a gem. For the Presidents Cup, the 18 holes are a composite of the East and West courses on the property that were designed by Alister McKenzie -- the same man who designed Augusta National. The course typically ranks among the best in the world and has links-like qualities that are unique to here.

Firm and fast, the course is unlike what the players are used to seeing. That is the same for the International team as well, but at least Australians Adam Scott, Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman have familiarity. Woods, Dustin Johnson and Webb Simpson are the only U.S. players with any experience on the course.

"It's a hard course to learn because the wind is such a factor,'' Simpson said. "So there's certain times left of the green is OK because of the wind and other times with all the wind, left in the same spot, you might not be able to get it close to the hole.

"I definitely think experience matters, seeing it in different winds. It's a very fair design. I think the fairways for the most part are not tight, and the difficulty comes around the greens. They are so firm and so fast, and there are big slopes at times. We don't see it much where a ball runs off the green in a bunker. We don't see this speed much. Even Augusta won't get this firm.''

At 7,047 yards, the course is hardly long, meaning many holes can't be played with a driver. That is typically an American strength -- and it is negated. Think Le Golf National in Paris, where the U.S. struggled mightily at the Ryder Cup last year.

The Road

This is just the sixth away match for the Americans in the 13-event history of the Presidents Cup, and the U.S. has earned just one more total point in those five matches, one of which was a loss and one a tie. And the last time the Presidents Cup was played outside of the United States, in 2015, the International team nearly stole a victory on the last day before losing 15½ to 14½.

While the U.S. prevailed at Royal Melbourne in 2011, the Americans were hammered here in 1998 by the score of 20½ to 11½ , their only defeat. And some of the circumstances are familiar, as that competition was also played in December, with several of the U.S. team members out of form.

"The guys just weren't sharp,'' said Woods, who played on that team. "Unfortunately, we didn't come in as prepared as we needed to, and the International team was loaded and they put it on us. They flat-out outplayed us, and we couldn't respond. Our games weren't sharp enough to respond, and unfortunately that led to a blowout.''

The Form

The Americans are without arguably their best player in Brooks Koepka, who is ranked No. 1 in the world. Dustin Johnson, who has slipped to fifth, hasn't played since the Tour Championship due to knee surgery that didn't even allow him to play last week at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

Then, you've got players such as Rickie Fowler and Bryson DeChambeau, who both enter with questions about the state of their game. Fowler's first event since the Tour Championship came last week in the Bahamas, and DeChambeau appeared out of sorts after undergoing a six-week fitness regimen during which he added more than 20 pounds. Patrick Cantlay also had a tough week in the Bahamas.

The bottom line is despite the U.S. depth, not everyone is at the top of their game.

The Rankings

Much is made of the fact that the U.S. has all 12 players ranked among the top 23 in the world. It is an impressive showing, and just two players for the International squad -- Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama -- are ranked that high.

But those rankings are determined almost exclusively on the back of stroke-play events. And the Presidents Cup is not stroke play. And the foursomes competition -- more commonly known as alternate shot -- can cause issues if both players are not on their games. Match play tends to thwart those kinds of advantages. Case in point: The Ryder Cup.

The Plan

Having lost seven in a row and 10 overall, the International side is in need of a jolt. It has put better teams on the course and not fared well against the United States, and captain Ernie Els is well aware. So he has taken a different approach, for which he needed some buy in.

Many of the pairings for the competition are not based on the usual factors, Els said, as he went with an analytics-based approach.

"The numbers haven't shown exactly what I expected,'' he said. "It's funny. A lot of the personalities I wanted together, the data shows they are not compatible. To convey that to the players has been tough. As you can expect, certain players want to play together -- but I can show them if it is not compatible.

"Now the good thing is the guys are taking that in and actually listening to me, whereas in previous years, guys were quite adamant [about] who they wanted to play with.''

Els borrowed from a concept used by European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn, who stuck with various pairings even when results dictated he might go another direction. The strategy worked as the Europeans cruised to a win in Paris.

It also doesn't hurt that Els is an expert on Royal Melbourne, having won the defunct Heineken Classic there three straight years in 2002, 2003 and 2004. He also holds the course record of 60. Imparting some knowledge can't hurt.