The last Presidents Cup was so close the International Team walked away with a renewed sense of hope but that seems a long way away now, especially in the dark shadow LIV Golf has cast over North Carolina this week.
LIV Golf has been dominating the headlines in the buildup to the showdown at Quail Hollow, just like it has every tournament this year, and, honestly, how could it not?
The Presidents Cup is the first major team event in the men’s game since the rebel series crashed its way on to the scene in June.
But unlike LIV’s team format, which only takes two scores from a team of four to count towards the final result, the Presidents Cup provides a bit more of a spark of excitement. It’s match play after all – anything goes.
CEO Greg Norman and his Saudi-backed agenda have claimed that they are bringing more excitement to the game – ‘Golf but louder’ in their own words – and the team format is part and parcel of their ambitions.
Bu that format has allowed players such as Pat Perez to ride the success of their teammates.
Perez finished 31 out of 48 players last weekend at LIV’s event in Chicago, the fifth of the series, but still managed to pocket a total of $904,000 thanks to his team, the ‘4 Aces’ captained by Dustin Johnson, winning to hand him a bonus of $750,000.
It was the 4 Aces’ fourth team win of the series and Perez has now amassed $3.7million in just four tournaments on LIV Golf despite not finishing inside the top 15 in any of the four LIV Golf tournaments he has played in this season.
But in the Presidents Cup, win or lose, every point counts – especially when it comes to the Sunday singles when every individual is under pressure to deliver for the team as a whole.
And when points hang in the balance, the theatrics begin to make an appearance. Just take Europe’s Miracle of Medinah at the 2012 Ryder Cup or even Team USA’s 2019 Presidents Cup comeback win, LIV has not come close to replicating the level of drama, passion or excitement.
Many defectors cited the team format as a contributing factor in their decision to jump ship. That, and the money, of course.
However, can the ‘4 Aces’ or the ‘Majesticks’ really create the same rallying loyalty we’ve seen on the greens at the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup? Ian Poulter has yet to be seen thumping his chest in the same way the Postman has in the past when delivering at the Ryder Cup.
Arguably, the International Team has not had that same bond the European school has developed when facing the USA but 2019 captain Ernie Els took great strides to grow a similar sense of identity and momentum.
The team left Melbourne in 2019 with the glimmer of hope that they might actually be able to fight and conquer the seemingly invincible Americans next time out.
Els said of his team when it was over: ‘If you look at their record and where these guys are at the moment, they are going places, I can tell you that.’ How swiftly that optimism has been dashed.
Now, his progress has been decimated by LIV Golf, the very organization that claims it is ‘growing the game’.
The International team has been, quite frankly, shredded by the breakaway rebel tour.
Defections from Cameron Smith, Marc Leishman, Abraham Ancer, Charl Schwartzel, Brandon Brace, Louis Oosthuizen, Carlos Ortiz and Joaquin Niemann had weakened captain Trevor Immelman’s pool of players.
It forced the South African into choosing rookies for five out of six of his captain’s picks – the only only pick with Presidents Cup experience being Si Woo Kim, who played on the 2017 team at Liberty National that lost so badly the matches were nearly clinched before the Sunday singles.
K.H. Lee of South Korea, Cameron Davis of Australia, Christiaan Bezuidenhout of South Africa, Sebastian Munoz of Colombia and big-hitting Taylor Pendrith of Canada are all new to the event.
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Adam Scott of Australia, Tom Kim and Sungjae Im of South Korea, Corey Conners of Canada, and Mito Pereira of Chile all qualified for their spots on the team, with Matsuyama the highest ranked at No. 17.
The side also possesses eight rookies in total with only three players winning tournaments this year and only Matusyama and Scott major winners.
In fact, the average ranking of the International team is 43. A stark comparison to the US’s 12.
Scott, who himself claimed the team was the ‘heaviest underdogs ever’, is the most experienced member of the side, playing in his 10th Presidents Cup without ever having won.
The US are not entirely immune from the defections with Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau all on the Ryder Cup team that demolished Europe not quite a year ago.
But they were not certainties to make the team even if they still had a PGA Tour card in their pockets.
And Davis Love III still boasts a team featuring five of the World’s top ten – all 12 in the top 25 – and seven members of the US new guard that trounced Europe at Whistling Straits last year.
Immelman admitted that the defections immensely hurt his selection process, in particular the loss of Ancer and veteran Louis Oosthuizen.
‘I’m not gonna lie, it hurts us immensely,’ he told Golfweek. ‘Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer were two integral parts of the International Team.
‘Louis, because he is so experienced. He’s played a number of Presidents Cups. He still has what it takes to compete at the highest level, under the most pressure. He proved that in the way he played in the major championships last year.
‘Over and above the way he plays, he is one of the leaders in the locker room. He’s extremely approachable, he’s funny as heck, he has an amazing personality and people gravitate towards him in the locker room. So it’s a massive loss on and off the golf course.
‘Ancer was a rookie in 2019, he played extremely well in Melbourne, he scored a number of points for us and he was like an up-and-coming guy with a little bit of edge, handles pressure well, doesn’t back down from anything. He proved when he won the World Golf event last year that he can also get up with the best in the world.
‘So this is a tremendous blow to a team that has always had some depth issues. We’ve lost two guys that were absolutely going to be there at Quail Hollow.’
Immelman also insisted that the LIV Golf rebels were well aware of the consequences of joining the Saudi-backed tour would include being barred from this week’s event.
‘I’m in a tough spot as the captain because the 24 players that are going to be at Quail Hollow, all of them in some way shape or form would have been offered some kind of LIV deal,’ he added.
‘But the 24 that are going to be there are going to be the ones that decided not to do that and decided to stay loyal to their team and stay loyal to the PGA Tour.
‘Really at the end of the day, speaking again now only for the International Team, those are the guys that I want. Those are the guys I want there because they’ve made that decision.
‘With regards to Louis and Abe and all the other guys that have gone over, I had many conversations with those players, as I’m sure they had with a bunch of other people, but I had many conversations with those players and they all were very keenly aware that if they made this decision, there was a strong possibility they wouldn’t be able to play the Presidents Cup.
‘It was a part of their decision making process. They still made the choice that they wanted to make. The 12 that are gonna be there, they didn’t make that choice. So those are the guys that I want to be in the trenches with that week.’
Those banished players themselves have expressed their disappointment at missing out.
Oosthuizen lamented that it was a ‘punch in the gut’, while American Bryson DeChambeau went on the offensive, claiming the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup were ‘only hurting themselves’ by barring players. But still the route back remains shut off.
The International team has only won once in 13 series of the event back in 1998. The US has won the last eight editions with the internationals clinching a 17-all tie in 2003.
And on paper it looks set to be another USA whitewash – not the entertaining golf audiences want to see on the global stage.
The 2019 tournament had been gripping with the International team coming the closest to clinching victory in years as the US trailed until the Sunday singles before eventually triumphing in a 16-14 comeback win.
And with the depth of talent on the International side growing it looked set to only get better.
There is now a worry this year’s event in North Carolina could be anti-climactic in the shadow of LIV Golf and its defections.
LIV has deprived us of a traditional team showdown. One featuring the best the US and the world has to offer facing off. But instead of watching one of golf’s finest formats play out across the fairways of Quail Hollow, the rebel series has once again marred one of the sport’s most entertaining events.
However, it may have ignited a fire in the belly of Immelman and Co, using the LIV slight to rise to the challenge. It is match play after all, and you can never say never. It’s unpredictable, that’s the fun of it.
The International team may be heading to Quail Hollow as underdogs but they have the chance to show LIV what true team competition looks like.