The eyes were bleary Thursday morning, and they will be again today because it’s impossible to take them off the Presidents Cup until the wee hours of the morning.
The PGA Tour’s international answer to the Ryder Cup is taking place half a world away in Australia, and for the first time it’s being televised live on the Golf Channel from a far-flung locale. “Thursday’s” Day 1 matches came on at 9 p.m. Wednesday here and ended at approximately 1 a.m. Weather moved up Thursday night’s programming even earlier, and there will be prime-time golf right through Saturday night, a rare treat for anyone needing a respite from football.
But the star of these late shows isn’t Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or the 22 other elite golfers competing in the biennial team event. The best reason to watch this Presidents Cup is the golf course: Royal Melbourne.
For aficionados who tune into the Masters Tournament every April just to get a glimpse of Augusta National Golf Club, Royal Melbourne is the same kind of architectural treat. That it also ranks with Augusta and Cypress Point as one of Alister MacKenzie’s three greatest design gems is obvious from watching some of the planet’s best golfers try to maneuver through its strategic quirks that include dramatic bunkering that cuts directly into the wickedly fast and undulating greens.
Many of the American and International players are calling Royal Melbourne “the best course they’ve ever played” and all of them regard it in a triumvirate with Augusta and St. Andrews – with perhaps the lone exception of Y.E. Yang, who blasphemed with the word “unfair” that we can only hope was mangled in translation.
There is no greater company to be in among golf stages.
It is this timeless miracle of a golf course that elevates the Presidents Cup. As an international team event, it already rates along with the majors as one of the five most compelling golf events of the season. However, the 17-year-old matches have yet to gain the stature of the Ryder Cup it so desperately tries to emulate.
The Presidents Cup has a couple of built-in disadvantages. It is impossible to replicate the passion of the Ryder Cup that pits the European Tour against its American counterpart when drawing from a diverse worldwide pool of guys who mostly all compete on the same PGA Tour.
You can’t manufacture animosity. It’s hard to get guys from Asia, Africa, Australia and the non-U.S. Americas to develop an “Us vs. Them” mentality when many of them live in the same gated communities in Florida.
So the Presidents Cup has had to come up with other ways to infiltrate our curiosity and draw our attention. The best thing organizers have done is take it to great venues such as Royal Melbourne. While the Ryder Cup sells itself to the highest bidder on many forgettable courses that often haven’t been built before signing a contract, the Presidents Cup is starting to take it to great courses that are conducive to the team format. In 2013 it will go to Jack Nicklaus’ revered Muirfield Village in Ohio, and many are predicting that the highly regarded Nine Bridges will play host to the 2015 staging in South Korea.
Imagine how good the Ryder Cup would be on a treasured course such as St. Andrews, Muirfield or Royal Portrush instead of lame resort courses such as the Americanized K Club in Ireland or boggy Celtic Manor in Wales. Not going to happen, because the Ryder Cup is all about the money and not the quality of the stage.
Aside from the venom and the emotional attachment that creates, the Ryder Cup could benefit from a few things the Presidents Cup does better.
The best thing about the Presidents Cup is the four-day format that presents more golf and adds up to six more points available. With every player involved in six matches in the single-session opening two days, captains can’t just hide weak players in certain formats. Only on the third day, when there are five matches in two sessions, can two players take a breather in the morning or the afternoon format (but not both).
The other enhancement is the public match-drawing process, in which the captains alternate placing teams, allowing the other side to counter. This is not only more strategic, but it also creates better drama by allowing marquee matchups such as the much-anticipated Tiger Woods against his former caddie Steve Williams’ new boss Adam Scott on Day 1. Woods and his partner Steve Stricker got steamrolled in the most lopsided rout in Presidents Cup foursomes history, a result that was as satisfying to one side as it was shocking to the other.
While the Presidents Cup needs to do away with its contrived no-tie policy in the singles matches and adopt the Ryder Cup’s draw-goes-to-the-defender approach, there is so little wrong with the presentation that it’s petty to complain.
And as long as the Presidents Cup keeps treating fans to welcome glimpses of bucket-list courses such as Royal Melbourne, it’s worth staying up to watch.