As every avid golf fan knows, the Presidents Cup is being contested this year in December, at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia.
Both the location and the date seem a long way away, so it’s understandable that the bi-annual competition hasn’t garnered much attention yet. Tiger Woods will captain the American team and Ernie Els leads the Internationals.
Tiger has two thirds of his team chosen automatically based on their play over the past two seasons. They include Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson and Bryson DeChambeau. He must add four more players by November 4th, and this is where it gets interesting.
Team captains rarely get credit for winning one of these team events because they never actually hit a shot themselves. Usually, a few players lead the way and get most of the glamour. On the other hand, losing captains seem to receive an inordinate amount of blame for everything from poor captain’s picks to rotten team chemistry to bad pairings to team uniforms that can’t keep the rain out. Losing captains never hit a shot either but it’s easier to blame them than the whole side or the country or its way of life. You know this is serious business when a country has to convene an 11-person gold ribbon task force to figure out why they keep losing, as the Americans did after Captain Tom Watson lost the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in 2014.
In the Presidents Cup, history has favoured the Americans in all but two tries since the competition was started 25 years ago – a lopsided loss at Royal Melbourne in 1998 and a tie in South Africa in 2003. Otherwise, the US team has pretty much manhandled the internationals and it’s been pretty easy sailing for the American captains.
That won’t necessarily be the case this time around. While the US is still expected to win and looks to have a much stronger team on paper, there are a few hurdles that Captain Woods will have to negotiate before he can get his hands on the trophy.
Dilemma #1: Should Tiger pick himself?
After the eight automatic qualifiers, the next four in order are Tony Finau, Gary Woodland, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed. An objective captain might just pick those four and be done with it. All but Woodland have experience in international team competitions and he’s the current US Open champion. Why dig any deeper when you have 12 of the best over the past two years?
But #13 on the rankings list is Tiger himself. It would be easy to ditch Patrick Reed after his shenanigans following the US Ryder Cup loss in Paris last year. Once dubbed Captain America, Reed sounded more like Captain Crybaby with his complaints, jabs at fellow players and Captain Jim Furyk, plus his constant whining. Nobody needs that on a team, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Tiger said so.
Depending on your point of view, Tiger either had a fantastic year in 2019 with another major victory or he fluked out a win at the Masters, then looked tired for the rest of the campaign. The truth is somewhere in the middle and anytime Tiger is mentioned, his health always has to be a consideration. As we found out, he needed another knee surgery after the season ended and it’s not known yet if he’ll be in top form by the time the team gets to Royal Melbourne.
Assuming he’s healthy, Tiger should pick himself. History has recorded many successful playing captains in other team competitions including the Ryder Cup, and who could argue that adding the greatest player in the history of the game is a bad choice. This isn’t some long-shot dig-way-down-the-list-for-veteran-experience type of choice. Tiger is one spot out of the top 12, although he does have plenty of veteran experience too. He has plenty of vice-captains to handle the day-to-day stuff in Australia, while his presence as a player would be a huge inspiration to the rest of his team.
Dilemma #2: Should he add Phil Mickelson to the team
Phil has been on 24 consecutive teams for the US in both Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competition. He holds the record for most appearances and most points, most foursome points and most fourball points in Presidents Cup history. According to insiders, Phil brings a positive chemistry to the team room and can be an inspirational leader. He certainly has the veteran leadership thing sewn up and we all know what Phil is capable of when he gets on a roll.
At first glance, Phil’s position at #16 in the standings, looks pretty good and not so far down that adding him to the team would be a stretch. However, upon further review, Phil’s points are not indicative of his recent play, which has been spotty at best, if not just plain lousy. Whether it has to do with Phil trying to adjust to his recent weight loss or just losing a bit of his edge as he approaches 50, this is not the same Phil that won as recently as February in Pebble Beach.
There are still three events before Tiger has to decide. If Phil can show flashes of brilliance and some consistency, it might make sense to choose him. There will be many who think the old Woods-Mickelson rivalry will play into this. Tiger has shown that he can be vengeful on occasion (hello Stephen Ames), but I think he’s too smart and wants to win too badly to let a personal grudge get in the way. If he thinks Phil can help the team, then he’ll add him.
In the final analysis though, I think the Mickelson streak ends this year. The team doesn’t need him, especially if Tiger chooses to play.
Dilemma #3: What about the other guys?
During the lead up to international team competitions, there is intense scrutiny of players farther down the points list that might be considered to replace players in the 9-12 spots, namely Finau, Woodland, Fowler and Reed. We’ve already looked at Woods #13 and Mickelson #17. None of Chez Reavie, Kevin Kisner, Charles Howell, Billy Horschel, Brandt Snedeker or Bubba Watson, to round out the Top 20, scream, “Pick me! Pick me!” All good players but are they measurably better than Finau, Woodland, Fowler and Reed? I don’t think so.
Player #22 may be different. Kevin Na won recently at the Shriners Hospital for Children Open and that was his third win on Tour in the past 16 months. He’s dogged and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, both valuable traits for match play competition. Is he better than the leading contenders? If Woods doesn’t pick himself and buys into the logic that Reed is a cancer on the team, then Na could be a suitable addition. Na and Woods actually have a pretty good relationship too.
As for sentimental favourites, there is a lot of support for Jordan Spieth. He’s #27 on the Presidents Cup points list and has shown relentless intent to get back on top over the past two seasons. Spieth’s record in team match play is exceptional (15-4-3) but he has never won a singles match in either Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup play in six attempts. On the plus side, Spieth is an all-star in Australia, with two victories in the Australian Open (2014, 2016), a T2 in 2015 and a Top 10 in 2017.
While Spieth brings a lot of experience and leadership to a team, his spotty play in 2019 probably disqualifies him this time around. Woods has an adequate list of players that are currently on form ahead of the likable Texan.
So, who will the four Captain’s picks be? As noted, there are still three international events to be played before Tiger has to make his choices and any of the pretenders could elevate their status to contender with a strong showing over the next three weeks.
My prediction based on the current standings is that Tiger will ditch Reed and add himself to the team. And if Kevin Na stays hot and can add another win, then Finau, Fowler or Woodland may be expendable. Woodland is likely the most vulnerable, as he lacks experience in team match play competition.
It’s going to be an exciting three weeks.
UPDATE: Phil Mickelson finished T30 in Korea, an improvement on his previous two finishes but likely not good enough to sway Tiger to use a Captain’s Pick on him. Gary Woodland finished T3, which will make the Captain happy and likely secure a team berth for the US Open champion. Jordan Spieth (T8) will keep his name in the conversation for at least another week. Kevin Na (T20) didn’t do anything to hurt his chances either. Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed did not play.