Happell: Presidents Cup, What's All the Fuss About?

American Phil Mickelson tees off in front of a large Presidents Cup gallery at Royal Melbourne in 2011.
So Royal Melbourne has again been awarded the Presidents Cup, the announcement coming last week that the grand old sandbelt course had won the right to stage the 2019 edition.

It will be the third time that Australia, and Royal Melbourne, have hosted the Cup since the event’s inception in 1994. 

You can be sure the club will put on a spectacular show, crowds will line the gallery ropes in their droves – as Melburnians do when a big event comes to town – and PGA Tour officials will go home happy, and with their coffers overflowing.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will trumpet endlessly the economic benefits of staging such a tournament in Melbourne – ‘the sports capital of the world’ in case you’d forgotten – and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monaghan will chime in with some pithy homilies at the closing ceremony.

Well, sorry for being a curmudgeon, but I just don’t get it. I don’t get the fuss about the Presidents Cup, and I don’t get the interest in it.

The Presidents Cup is an artifice, a contrivance. It’s a competition invented by the PGA Tour as an (anaemic) version of the Ryder Cup, it’s an event without history and one that players are largely ambivalent about.

It’s also illogical. The International team is the sum of many disparate parts. Australians, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Fijians and South Americans – who often don’t know each other well - are expected to bond together for one week every two years and develop a team spirit while playing under a strange-looking blue-and-yellow flag with 12 stars on it. 

But more importantly, it’s a biennial fixture that lacks those vital ingredients which make up any great sporting contest: passion, drama and an intense rivalry – the mainstays of just about every modern-day Ryder Cup.

Players, I feel, couldn’t much care whether the Presidents Cup appeared on the tour calendar or not. 

When the event was last played in Melbourne in 2011, Japan’s boy wonder Ryo Ishikawa inexplicably turned up a day late, and half asleep, irritating the hell out of team captain Greg Norman. For reasons never properly explained, Ishikawa chose to miss the team dinner on Monday night and a day’s practice on Tuesday before eventually arriving in Melbourne on Tuesday night.

That left him with one day’s practice and familiarisation at the idiosyncratic Alister MacKenzie layout, a course that over the years has made fools of much better players than him. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese lost his first two matches.

The lop-sided results between the two teams over 11 Cups has also put pressure on the concept. Since 1994, the US has won nine editions, drawn one and lost one (in 1998, at Royal Melbourne as it happens).

The International team captain at the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea, Zimbabwean Nick Price, was exasperated by the scoreline and said the Internationals really needed a win to inject some life into the event.

“I will tell you guys, this is a really important Presidents Cup,” Price told a pre-event press conference. “I'm not going to say, "What if?" But this better be closely contested. I'll let you guys figure out the repercussions (if it isn't).”

One of those repercussions could be players not wanting to take part at the end of a busy season, with Price, a three-time major winner, admitting: “It's hard for these guys. You ask these guys to give up a week and to play in an event that is not competitive.

“Any one of these guys can go play anywhere around the world and receive money and they can easily dump this event if they wanted to.”

His top-ranked player at the time, Australia’s Jason Day, agreed with his captain, adding: “This is a huge deal for us right now. If it doesn't happen and we keep losing, guys won't get interested in it and won't want to play in it and won't want to travel.”

Four days later, the Americans again triumphed – just – meaning their winning streak stretched to five. 

The PGA Tour continues to support the concept because the Cup makes a good deal of money. It pays Royal Melbourne a peppercorn rent to host the tournament, yet rakes in a small fortune from ticket sales and merchandise and, of course, the TV broadcast rights.

The Tour points out that $38 million has been raised for charity from tournament proceeds over the past 11 editions of the Cup, stretching back 23 years, and that sounds impressive enough but what I’d be really interested to learn is how much the Tour makes from this event. And on that score, the figures are rather opaque: no-one is really sure.

The PGA Tour has long relied on the Victorian Government and, through it, Victorian Major Events (aka the Victorian taxpayer) to fund some of its tournaments that needed an overseas home.

Melbourne therefore scored the 1998 Presidents Cup (which admittedly was a success on almost every measure), the 2001 WGC Match Play event at Metropolitan Golf Club, which was staged for some reason in the first week of January and attracted barely a handful of the world’s top 20 players, and the 2011 Presidents Cup. 

Then, when China lost interest in hosting the World Cup of Golf, and the event was looking for a new home, who did the PGA Tour turn to for a bailout in 2016? Yep, the trusty old Victorian Major Events, which is funded by me and every other Victorian taxpayer. 

So pardon my scepticism and curmudgeonliness. Excuse me if I don’t get out of my seat and join the standing ovation at the latest news.

The Presidents Cup features some of the world's greatest golfing talent but, until there’s some deep-seated passion, intensity and drama – and the occasional win for the Internationals – it’s not much more than a glorified exhibition with a scoreboard.

(Charles Happell is a former Fairfax golf writer who has covered three Presidents Cups, in 1998, 2000 and 2011.)


Want video tips delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to iseekgolf.com newsletters.

iSeekGolf is Australia’s largest golf tee times website.
To book a tee time at an iSeekGolf venue, visit iseekgolf.com/teetimes


More Articles from Charles Happell