“This team is a unique team from any in the past in that the talent level is as high or higher than we’ve ever had, and the camaraderie amongst each other on and off the course is a whole different environment.”
– Phil Mickelson
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The 12th edition of the Presidents Cup may not officially have ended on a Saturday, but for the U.S. team the champagne corks were practically in mid-air.
The Americans led by 11 points after dominating the first four sessions and entered the final day needing a lone point out of 12 singles matches to clinch the Presidents Cup for the 10th time in 12 tries.
“We could have sent three guys out there and figured out a way to get one point,” Patrick Reed said.
Blunt, yes. And true.
The red-white-and-blue victory celebration essentially started before the U.S. team even took its final ferry ride over from Manhattan. The Sunday finish at Liberty National, which culminated in a 19-11 American victory, lacked not only suspense but excitement. It was fitting that the Statue of Liberty, just off across the water, faced away from the action.
“A performance like this was unique, because I’ve never felt this stress-free on Sunday,” said Phil Mickelson, who ran his Presidents Cup victory total to a record 26 wins. “We’re always uptight. We’re always anxious. It’s always a close Sunday final. Even if you’re four or five points down, you’re going in believing you can win and make it up.
“But we knew what the result was going to be. We just didn’t know what the final tally or how it was all going to play out.”
Added Dustin Johnson: “It was kind of unusual being out there knowing that it really didn’t matter. We were going to win no matter what.”
This well-oiled U.S. machine just couldn’t be stopped. The Americans rode a huge wave of confidence into the Big Apple, bringing a battalion of players armed with talent and momentum. Eleven of the 12 on the U.S. squad qualified for the Tour Championship, and the only player who didn’t (Mickelson) was a shot away from making it to East Lake. Six of the top 12 in the Official World Golf Ranking represented the U.S. at Liberty National, including the top-ranked Johnson, No. 2 Jordan Spieth and No. 4 Justin Thomas, who had just wrapped up the FedEx Cup title to cap a five-win season that saw his first major victory.
The only challenge for the Americans? “Our goal was to not be complacent, to be sharp and ready to play,” Mickelson said.
That concern was put to rest early, as the Americans opened an 8-2 lead after the first two sessions. The contributions came from everywhere, too, whether it was Thomas and Rickie Fowler winning twice and not reaching the 17th hole, or Kevin Chappell and Charley Hoffman – two of five first-time international cup players for the U.S. – opening their team careers with a 6-and-5 four-ball rout of Anirban Lahiri and Charl Schwartzel.
“The guys are trying, that’s all I can say,” International captain Nick Price said after two sessions. “They are trying their tails off.”
Price’s squad was just outmatched and outmanned. The U.S. had more horsepower and more depth. U.S. vice-captain Tiger Woods even called this American team “one of the best putting teams I’ve ever seen.” To make matters worse, the Internationals’ best players, World No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama and No. 7 Jason Day, entered the week not playing their best – the two stars finished the week a combined 2-5-2.
Day, playing alongside fellow Aussie Marc Leishman, dropped the first foursomes match of Saturday morning to Reed and Spieth, who went on to finish 3-0-1 together at Liberty National to run their record to 8-1-3 in team competition. And the Americans continued to push down on the gas pedal, losing just one of eight matches on the day.
“I mean, our goal from the minute we got here was to crush them as bad as we can,” Daniel Berger told Sky Sports after a Saturday afternoon four-ball victory alongside Fowler. “I hope that we close them out today and we go out there tomorrow and beat them even worse.”
Lahiri and Si Woo Kim made sure the Internationals’ hopes weren’t completely dashed a day early with a thrilling 1-up victory over Chappell and Hoffman. But with the U.S. sitting at a startling 14½ points before Sunday and needing only 15½ to clinch, it was a typical story of the inevitable being delayed.
At the start of the week, the U.S. had a goal of winning every session. That didn’t happen, as the Internationals took the singles 7½-4½. The late effort kept the U.S. from besting the 1967 Ryder Cup team, which beat GB&I by a cup-record margin of 15 points (there were 32 matches).
Not that it mattered. Chappell and Hoffman carried around bottles of champagne after their singles matches, and Hoffman had a cigar lit by the time they showered Berger on the 17th green following his clinching point over Kim. With every completed match, an American player joined the victory lap.
They had plenty to celebrate – not only the victory, but how they did it. Just how dominating was the Americans’ performance at Liberty National? Consider this: Louis Oosthuizen was the only International player to post two match victories, while the U.S. had 10 players post two or more wins.
“This team is a unique team from any in the past in that the talent level is as high or higher than we’ve ever had, and the camaraderie amongst each other on and off the course is a whole different environment. There’s this great support system,” said Mickelson, who at 47 has played on 23 Presidents and Ryder cup teams. “… These young guys are not only great players, fiercely competitive, but they have a quality that’s taken me decades to acquire, and that is they are genuinely happy for each other’s success. That type of support amongst each other, even though they are competing against each other, brings about a really special energy and dynamic to this team.”
Said U.S. captain Steve Stricker: “This (team) reminds me a lot of 2008 Ryder Cup team there when we finally were able to win at Valhalla. A lot of close-knit guys there on that team. But this team is even, I think, better than that. They are young, they are explosive, they have a lot of fun with one another.”
The fun is likely not over, either. This victory marks the second straight year that an American cup team held its opponents to 11 points, after doing the same at last year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. And with a nucleus of players under 30 – Spieth, Thomas, Fowler, Koepka, Reed, Berger – who could represent the U.S. in international team competitions for another 10-plus years, this might be just the beginning.
“You start to kind of look forward and wonder where this momentum could take us,” Spieth said.
Jim Furyk, an assistant this year, has to be encouraged as he prepares to captain the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup team in Paris. While Price spoke about the difficulty of trying to pair players, the U.S. has that part figured out, now more than ever. There’s Spieth and Reed, and Johnson and Koepka in four-ball. And now Fowler and Thomas, who are neighbors in Jupiter, Fla.
“We wanted to try some different combinations, but we just never got there because they were playing so well,” Stricker said. “… USA team golf is in a great spot. Looks like they could be around together for a long time.”
Bad news for the Internationals, who are reeling heading into the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. Good news for the Americans, who, like Lady Liberty, are enjoying the view from the top.
(Note: This story appears in the October 2017 issue of Golfweek.)