What a difference two years make! This Presidents Cup has been a beauty

December 13, 2019

Two days in, with two days to go, let it be said: This Presidents Cup has been fantastic. The primitive demands of the golf course at Royal Melbourne. (The ground game lives!) The astounding quality of the golf from players you might not know well. (Who would now be surprised to see Abraham Ancer as an Open contender come June? Or July, for that matter.) The unexpected U.S. turnaround late in the second session (led by Tiger Woods and his fiery wingman, Justin Thomas). The excellent commentary of Justin Leonard on the Golf Channel (always a prickly player, he has been so direct and economical). Plus Patrick Reed, the two captains and the Australian fans.

You can’t say enough about what Reed has done for this 13th playing of the Presidents Cup, which the International team has won only once, in 1998, the first of the three times it was played at Royal Melbourne. The main issue for the Internationals over the years has not been lack of talent. It’s been lack of purpose. All those different nationalities, from different professional tours, speaking different languages. But Reed’s arrogance in the face of his flagrant rules issue last week has given the Internationals something to unify them.

For now, that has to be offered only as an opinion. In time, the truth will come out. But even without anybody really talking, it’s obvious. The one thing that unifies all serious golfers, everywhere in the world, is complete fidelity to the rulebook. Reed, by his act with those lie-improving swings in a sandy waste area at the Hero Challenge, put his own needs ahead of golf’s sacred tenet, that the rules are the same for everybody. Reed has shown no understanding of what he did and no contrition.

In the name of team, his captain and his teammates have had to defend him, but it had to be painful to do so. In Friday’s round, on the 11th hole, responding to a jeering crowd, Reed made a birdie putt and then a shoveling act. As an act of protest, it made no sense. He was the person who turned his wedge into a shovel at the Hero. There are 23 players in the event who could explain to Captain America the ridiculousness of his act.

After the first day, Reed said, “It goes from wanting to beat those guys to it now turning personal, so it’s going to be a fun week.” Yes, it’s personal — to them.

The day-long flight to get to Australia was always going to make the week more challenging for the American team. The unfamiliarity of the course was, too. Reed has been a complicating factor. It was not difficult to see a path to victory for the internationals. But who would have guessed a 6.5-3.5 score, Internationals leading, at the end of the second day of the four-day competition? Not even Ernie Els, the International captain.

It’s been great, seeing the Big Easy in action in this new leadership role. Two years ago, when he was an assistant to Nick Price on another losing team when the Presidents Cup was played at Liberty National, he said it was time to rethink everything the International team was doing, and how the Cup was played. Even though he’s one of the great feel players in the history of modern golf, as a captain he has brought in statistical analysis in new ways for the International team.

But all the while, he has the ideal personality to lead a team, because he’s such a bloke, so quick to open a beer, to tell a story. You could see Easy’s relative ease in his announcing the day’s lineups. Woods looked like he was preparing surgical tools for open-heart surgery.

Woods is a playing captain, the first since Hale Irwin in 1994, and his play has been majestic. He is so in control of his swing and his distance. It’s become popular to say that the only major he could win at this stage in his career is the Masters, because Augusta National has no rough. But Royal Melbourne is as linksy as any course the British Open is played on, and there are many years when Open rough is as wispy at the rough at Royal Melbourne. He can win an Open again. Absolutely.

He can win this Presidents Cup, too. He’s 2-0 so far, thanks mostly to his own fine play but also to a gutsy putt by Thomas on the 18th green Friday. If Woods wins it as a captain, it’ll be because of his form. It would be a fitting end to his most interesting year in golf.