Format change more important than Day 1 pairings

U.S. captain Fred Couples works with his assistant captain Davis Love III on the pairings for the Day 1 four-ball matches prior to the start of The Presidents Cup.

U.S. captain Fred Couples works with his assistant captain Davis Love III on the pairings for the Day 1 four-ball matches prior to the start of The Presidents Cup.

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DUBLIN, Ohio – The six Thursday matchups for the Presidents Cup have been determined. But, for the sake of the International team’s chances and cup growth, the pairings are not as important as the opening-day format itself. For a change they will begin with four-balls, and that probably means the Internationals won’t be behind the eight-ball after one session.

Historically the biennial competition has started with a half-dozen foursomes, or alternate-shot, matches. That has not been a pretty thing for the Internationals in the past three meetings because they have been alternately shot to pieces.

Deeper United States teams have won the past three cups by at least four points because of a commanding 25.5-7.5 foursomes edge. In those, starting in 2007, the Internationals have trailed by five, one and two points after the first day.

Considering that and a 7-1-1 U.S. lead in the series, it follows that International captain Nick Price lobbied the PGA Tour for changes that would help fix the competitive imbalance. His main request – reducing the points from 34 to 28, like the Ryder Cup – was not granted. But at least he got something, and that something will be in play Thursday.

Little wonder then that Price was delighted when he and counterpart captain Fred Couples took turns matching up their doubles teams on Wednesday.

“It’s wonderful they changed to the better-ball tomorrow,” Price said. “I’m really happy (about that). ... It’s a positive move. Certainly for us.”

He should be buoyed, largely because momentum in a match-play event is vital.

Despite the lopsided final scores in the past three meetings, the Internationals had an 18.5-14.5 advantage in four-balls. That means they have a better chance of getting an early thrust because of the format change.

Still, the Internationals know they need to get off to a good start. If they fall behind after Day 1, that would not bode well entering six alternate-shot matches Friday.

“The start,” Price said emphatically, “is very important.”

Price’s team would seem outmatched, at least on paper. But they don’t play golf on paper, and a certain truism is older than the gutta percha: Anything can happen in 18-hole match play.

Price should hope that holds true, because the Americans have higher world rankings and more match-play experience on the big stage. All 12 U.S. players rank in the top 29 in the world, whereas only four Internationals do. The Americans have eight men in the top 14, the Internationals one in the top 15 and three 53rd or worse.

Whiz kid Jordan Spieth is the only one of the 12 Americans who hasn’t played on a Presidents or Ryder Cup team. On the other hand, the Internationals have seven rookies.

“What we lack in experience, we’ll make up for in enthusiasm,” Price said.

Let’s hope so, unless you want another foregone conclusion come Sunday. If the International team can somehow solve its foursomes puzzle, it stands a good chance. If not, then expect more of the same.

But first things first, meaning Thursday four-balls on a Muirfield Village course that should yield plenty of birdies because of soft turf, low rough and immaculate grooming. Predicting the outcome of those six matches is dicey business, of course. One man’s guess is that the day will end 3-3. The key word there is “guess.”

For certain, Price put up Jason Day and Graham DeLaet first and Couples matched with Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker. The U.S. then went with Wake Forest buddies Webb Simpson and Bill Haas, and Price countered with Masters champion Adam Scott and potential superstar Hideki Matsuyama.

Only 21, Matsuyama is ranked 30th in the world but, according to Price, probably has never played with a partner before. Price anticipates that will lend support and confidence.

The Americans would seem to have an edge in the all-major-champion third match, featuring Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley against longtime South African pals Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. Mickelson-Bradley went 3-0 at the 2012 Ryder Cup, and Oosthuizen doesn’t figure to be in top form considering he has had an injury-marred season.

The fourth match might be the most interesting, for it pits the old-young U.S. pair of Steve Stricker (46) and Jordan Spieth (20) against Hall of Famer Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge, who has led the Tour in birdies three of the past four years.

Spieth and Stricker have been among the hottest American players of late, and they are delighted to be partners.

“Someone as consistent as he is frees me up,” Spieth said of Stricker. “It allows me to play like a normal event.”

The U.S. braintrust decided to put Tiger Woods, the world’s No. 1 player, near the back on purpose. As assistant captain Davis Love III said, “You want your anchor guys to be near the end.”

Hence, Woods and his jokester pal Matt Kuchar will take on Angel Cabrera and captain’s pick Marc Leishman. This match, if not the Presidents Cup outcome, could hinge largely on which Cabrera shows up: the one who has won two majors and contended in others, or the one who disappears for weeks at a time.

Another major-championship tandem will bring up the rear for the Americans. Zach Johnson and reigning PGA champion Jason Dufner will meet the less heralded Branden Grace and Richard Sterne of South Africa.

“We’ve got some great matchups there,” Price said. “I think we’re in for a real day’s treat of golf.”

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