Calling the Presidents Cup a “competition” seems to strain the bounds of credibility, at least on paper. Team USA has dominated this biennial rivalry since it began in 1994, going 9-1-1 in 11 previous meetings, and this year’s American team is again heavily favored and looking to steamroll the Internationals at Liberty National Golf Club.
The U.S. team is bolstered by a nucleus of young guns who will probably be on the squad for the next 20 years. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Brooks Koepka all won majors this year. Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, and Daniel Berger are Uncle Sam’s other 20-something boys rounding out the backbone of unbridled U.S. youth. Throw in the streaky birdie-machine Charley Hoffman, a gritty and steady Kevin Kisner, consummate ball-striker Matt Kuchar, and the World Golf Hall of Famer with five majors Phil Mickelson, and you start to get a sense of the Internationals maddening sense of futility. Team USA is stacked with talent.
The Internationals, on the other hand, haven’t won the Cup since 1998. Only six players on their 12-man team are ranked inside the top-30 in the Official World Golf Rankings (compared to every player on the U.S. team being inside the top-30), and only two of their players have winning Presidents Cup records. Jason Day has never won a Foursomes match in his Presidents Cup career, Hideki Matsuyama was hot early this season but hasn’t really come close to his early form since, and Adam Scott has lost more matches than any player on either team. Another presidential landslide for the Americans and continued mega-drought for the Internationals appears to be a foregone conclusion.
Except it’s not. In match play, fortune favors the bold. Like the adage says: a wounded dog is a dangerous dog. The Internationals are energized and motivated by their underdog status, and in this format where taking more chances can be rewarded with extraordinary results, this endearing group of Bad News Bears has a chance to rattle the Americans and turn the tide in their favor. Thursday will feature five Foursomes matches with five Four-Ball matches on Friday. On Saturday there are four Foursomes matches and four Four-Ball matches. And then finally on Sunday, all 12 players from each side compete in Singles battles to ultimately decide the Cup.
Liberty National is a 7,328-yard, par-71 track with strapping par-4’s at its core, and is already tournament tested, having hosted The Barclays in 2009 and 2013. Manhattan skyline views are breathtaking, and the Statue of Liberty stands in all her glory less than 1,000 yards from the 18th green. It’s hard to not feel inspired and emotionally transported standing in this powerful setting with history on the line. This 2006 Tom Kite and Bob Cupp designed layout is tremendously demanding with narrow, curving fairways, and smallish greens that can become subtle terrors to hit when the winds pick up. Tight approach shots into putting surfaces with closely-mown areas that fall into bunkers will offer a stern test of the short game. Intermediate rough separates Bentgrass fairways from the primary Fescue rough, water hazards come into play threateningly on a number of holes, and challenging mounding throughout the landscaping will generate some astounding and abominable shots. Routing for the Presidents Cup begins with what used to be the 5th hole (a 427-yard, par-4), and concludes with the 193-yard, par-3 4th hole.
Caddy+ view of the 193-yard par 3 at Liberty National
A demanding opening tee shot on the narrow, downhill 427-yard, par-4 1st hole amps up the pressure right out of the gate with water lurking on the left for players who overcook their drives. Finding the fairway here is a must. Even second shots can be daunting as the water makes its way continuously from the tee box to the putting surface. The green is extremely contoured and pulling your approach left can bring bogey or worse into play very quickly.
Challenging players for precision as opposed to length, the short, 150-yard, par-3 6th hole is the smallest, most tightly bunkered hole on the course. With a lateral hazard surrounding the extremely contoured green and native, fescue rough noticeably plentiful, No. 6 will claim its share of victims. When the winds are swirling (and they will be), it’s a dicey green to hold even with the best execution. Club selection here will be crucial with moments of delight and disaster an absolute certainty. No. 6 is one of the most scenic holes on the course beneath the inspiring shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and it may also be one of the most pivotal.
The short, dogleg-right, 398-yard, par-4 15th hole requires an accurate tee shot to avoid a water hazard on the right and a creek that cuts across the fairway. An angled approach into the green must avoid deep bunkers on the left, which makes for a demanding up and down. Pin placements in the back will result in some grueling and very quick putts with the putting surface severely undulating in the rear. Pin placements in the front, however, will be flat without any break and much easier to capitalize on scoring opportunities.
Liberty National’s 193-yard, par-3 closing hole features a figure-eight shaped green which slopes from front to back and is protected by two bunkers in the front and one on the right. Any shot that misses the green offers little hope of getting up and down. Eye-popping visuals of the Manhattan skyline and Freedom Tower aside, club selection is key to hitting a truly beautiful shot on No. 18.
Players To Watch
U.S. captain Steve Stricker will employ a pod system at Liberty National, similar to the one Paul Azinger made famous at the 2008 Ryder Cup. Each pod will include two rookies and two veterans, but the six Team USA rookies are really only rookies in name alone. Justin Thomas has elevated his game to a completely new level this year, and his intensity and length make him a good pairing with just about anyone. Brooks Koepka will be counted on to match his Ryder Cup contribution last fall when he went 3-1. While Daniel Berger and Kevin Kisner might be the surprises of the bunch. Both of these players are supremely confident and in great form and won’t be intimidated by the bright lights of this big stage. Expect to see Jordan Spieth and Captain America Patrick Reed paired at Liberty National and a big part of a Team USA victory should they win. While Phil Mickelson will be leaned on to lead by example as Lefty has more victories (23) in Presidents Cup history than his 11 teammates combined (15).
On the International side, Nick Price is returning for his third and final term as captain and will throw four rookies into the fray. However, a bigger unknown for Price might be in finding the winning balance of chemistry and camaraderie in pairings. The Internationals field a team from eight different countries, making it challenging to push the right buttons and motivate such a diverse group. If the Internationals are going to restore the competitive balance in this event, Jason Day will have to play better. Day went 0-4-1 in Presidents Cup play in 2015 and has never won a Foursomes match. Adam Scott has been a fixture on the International squad since 2003 and is the most experienced member of the team. Scott’s one of the game’s best ball-strikers, and his incredible power off the tee and laser-like accuracy from the fairway have to show up if the Internationals are going to have a chance. The “X-Factor” on the team, however, might be Marc Leishman. Leishman’s had the most consistent season of his career with 14 top-25s and has shown he can compete with anyone on Tour. If Price can plot a strategy to take advantage of Leishman’s strengths and get him going early, it could ramp-up the entire International team.
Sooner or later the Internationals are going to win again. It just won’t be this year. Every player on the International team is fierce, and a proven competitor who hates to lose. That alone should make this Presidents Cup a riveting competition and prevent the Americans from bulldozing the Internationals. But the U.S. is just too deep, too talented, and have too much chemistry to expect the Internationals to pull off an upset. Team USA will retain the Cup 16-14 and win for the seventh consecutive time.