Ben Coley makes the case for an upset in the Presidents Cup, which gets under way on Thursday at Royal Melbourne.
Recommended bets: Outright
Team USA have won the last seven renewals of the Presidents Cup, a period spanning 12 years. Only once in a dozen meetings have the Internationals triumphed, and two years ago in New Jersey it wasn't much of a contest. When they have had a chance to win, such as in South Korea in 2015, they've blown it.
It's 4/11 that the favourites win again, just as they did here at Royal Melbourne in 2011, and by most measures that looks a good price. The USA are collectively higher-ranked, more decorated, perhaps in better form, and they're captained by arguably the greatest golfer in the history of the sport. Their strength in depth is such that both the Masters and US Open champions needed wildcards, along with a player who won a FedEx Cup Playoff event recently, and another who has been inside the world's top 20 for over a year.
As of Monday, the highest-ranked player representing Ernie Els and the Internationals is Adam Scott. Ten of the 12 United States players are ranked higher, and it would have been 11 but for the absence of the world number one, Brooks Koepka. The lowest-ranked player on Tiger Woods' side is Rickie Fowler, at 24th; his equivalent for the Internationals is Hao-tong Li at 65th, one of six who are outside the top 40.
To win, the Internationals need to perform to their absolute best, and to hope that the USA get nowhere close to theirs. They need a perfect storm. They might just get it.
Think of the ways things can go wrong for the United States. For once, it's a long list.
They could have a key player missing, like Koepka. They could have another key player arriving on the back of a long absence, having had surgery in the interim, like Dustin Johnson. They could have a player in the middle of a storm of his own making, one who has upset the team room before, like Patrick Reed. There could be doubts around even their most consistent performers, like Patrick Cantlay, who was 17th of 18 players last week.
They could have a captain who is potentially distracted, like Tiger Woods. They could have a player who is distracted, like Tiger Woods. They could have a man with back problems forced to fly around the world, like Tiger Woods. They could have a player-captain forced to step off the plane and immediately begin promoting the event, like Tiger Woods.
They could be playing at the one course they've lost at before - Royal Melbourne. It's also the only course at which Woods himself has produced losing records, both in 1998, when the Internationals won 20.5-11.5, and in 2011, when the USA triumphed 19-15 but the Internationals made things very interesting with an early surge on Sunday.
Virtually every card that could have fallen in favour of Internationals over United States, of Els over Woods, has. Alone, none of them could be called significant concerns. Combined, they're enough to offer real hope that, 21 years after their one and only victory, the Internationals might at last double up.
None of this is to say that Els doesn't have issues of his own. First and foremost, Branden Grace's form over the last nine months has been so poor as to deny him a wildcard place, which would have been unthinkable when he almost won his second PGA Tour title in February. Grace has been the best non-American player over the last two renewals of the event, and his best game would've gone hand-in-hand with match play golf at Royal Melbourne.
So significant has been Grace's contribution, that it's a surprise he's not involved in a non-playing capacity. He would've been an excellent addition to the team room, where he's been particularly vocal in the past, and that could be an oversight. Perhaps he was asked and refused; perhaps it never crossed anyone's mind. His absence from the golf course and from the team room will be felt, and someone needs to fill the void.
It's also unfortunate that Charl Schwartzel was out injured from April until the start of December, where his excellent return to competitive golf at Leopard Creek suggested he might still have offered something to this team. Els couldn't pick him, of course, but had Schwartzel managed to come back a month earlier, perhaps this former Masters champion would have made and strengthened the side.
Instead, Louis Oosthuizen is the only South African player. Some will tell you that this is a good omen - the last time only one South African made it, his name was Els, and the Internationals won here at Royal Melbourne - but that, of course, is silliness.
Jason Day's absence doesn't feel like a concern, but that in itself tells a story. Day has fallen a long way since even last spring, when he won his second title of the season on the PGA Tour, and had been handed a generous wildcard before withdrawing through injury. As with Grace and Schwartzel, Day at his best would have been a huge asset. That all three miss out because, for various reasons, they're not able to perform, is by the by: when Els took this job he would have expected all three to feature.
Any case for the Internationals must find the same positive spin which Els is required to. Personally speaking, I am glad Byeong Hun An gets into the side as 13th man, his ball-striking and high standards of form marking him out as a potentially key weapon despite having been first reserve. An might pair with Sungjae Im, who is rapidly becoming an elite player and is as exciting as any American not yet at that level, including behemoth-in-the-making Matt Wolff and the more understated but likely no less capable Collin Morikawa.
Im might not yet be a PGA Tour winner, but at 21 years of age he's well ahead of the curve, and his time is coming. His is a game without weakness, one which took him all the way to East Lake and coveted rookie of the year honours, and he's already capable of being a key player here for Els. I do not expect him to in any way shirk the issue.
There was plenty of competition for the other wildcard spots, with Joaquin Niemann and Adam Hadwin jumping the likes of Shugo Imahira, Dylan Frittelli, Erik van Rooyen, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Sebastian Munoz, Corey Conners, Grace, and others in the queue. Form concerns are there with both, but Niemann looks made for this and Hadwin brings both experience - he played well enough in 2017 - and a game which works well at Royal Melbourne.
If the Internationals are to win, though, they'll need to lean heavily on their Australian contingent. Not only are all three classy - Adam Scott is a major champion and former number one; Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman have both gone close at the very highest level and are clearly on the fringes of the game's most elite group. They also have a home advantage which may be more significant here in Australia than in any other country on earth.
When the Internationals last hosted the Presidents Cup, they did so at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Incheon, South Korea. Even beyond the name and the nationality of the designer(s), it was a big, open, par 72, built to be American, playing firmly into the hands of the visitors and their powerfully modern games.
Royal Melbourne, whose composite course was in part designed by a Yorkshireman with Scottish parents and includes just two par-fives, is a completely different challenge. It's considered one of the great venues in the world, not because it is pristine and manicured and dotted with water hazards or surrounded by thick rough, but because it is designed to lure an aggressive player into making a mental mistake. Flags can be impossible to access from the wrong part of the fairway and strategy, rather than brawn, is king.
There are undulation changes throughout, the threat of wind is constant, and locals say you don't need to repair pitch marks because these greens are so hard that it's impossible to make one. It's little wonder that the American golfer who managed to win an Australian Open here is Tom Watson, arguably the finest links golfer of all time. It's that willingness to be creative and need to think which makes Royal Melbourne the virtual opposite of Incheon, and of Liberty National, where the USA ran riot two years ago.
None of this is to say that the USA cannot or will not cope with the challenge, as they did in 2011. But one of their finest links golfers, Jordan Spieth, is absent. One of the two who fared best in The Open this summer is also absent, and the one who has threatened to win The Open more than once previously, Dustin Johnson, arrives under under an injury cloud. Rickie Fowler is another you'd expect to cope with the gear change, but he hadn't played in months before last week's Hero World Challenge. Woods, three times an Open champion, hasn't played this course as well as you'd expect, especially as he says he loves it.
Xander Schauffele almost won The Open at Carnoustie, Gary Woodland won the US Open by the coast and Bryson DeChambeau is capable of adjusting, too. So is Patrick Cantlay, so is Tony Finau, and it's possible to argue that this style of course makes Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar more valuable than they might have been elsewhere. Justin Thomas is getting the hang of links golf, and he's not alone.
And yet, this is still very, very different to what the United States team are used to. Last year, in the Ryder Cup, they faced a less significant gear change, one which robbed them of the right to hit driver off 14 tee boxes, and they failed to adapt. It is possible - if far from guaranteed - that they again struggle. Whether that's the case or not, this International side - headed by three proud Australians - looks far better suited to the course, enough to think it could make up for a basic talent deficit.
Make no mistake, winning the Presidents Cup is a huge ask for the Internationals, but they have much in their favour and look worth a bet at 11/4. It might also be worth taking a real chance on some creative correct scores, or asking your bookmaker to price up a handicap in which Els and co give up a start. If they win, I suspect it'll be courtesy of a strong start which might force the United States to attack a golf course with its own fearsome defence.
Recommended bets: Correct score
There's not a lot of science here. If, like me, you're positive as regards the chances of an upset, it makes sense to supplement an outright bet with a few bullets on the correct score market.
The staking plan above reflects an investment of three points, to return anything between 25.5 and 36. An alternative option would be to focus solely on this market, remove the widest winning margins and also take out the narrowest, the theory being that the United States are more likely to win a tight game.
Doing so would allow you to effectively enhance the price on the Internationals winning beyond the 11/4, ruling out only a few permutations. The nature of these previews requires a rigid staking plan which we can settle for our record, but the basic message here ought to be clear: the Internationals are overpriced across the board and getting creative could pay dividends.
Recommended bets: Top players
If you're backing the Internationals to win, you must be interested in the top combined points scorer market, because if they are to win, it's highly likely that one of their players will oblige here. It's also a market dominated by American players at the top end, despite the very obvious potential for their potential individual tallies to be diluted by the strength they have across the board.
Put another way, were there betting on which team will ask more men to play all five sessions, the Internationals would be favourites, their market strength determined both by logic and by history.
The Presidents Cup has changed scoring format more than once down the years, and from 2003 to 2013, every player was required to play at least four of the five matches. In those renewals, we therefore had something of a level playing field: some players were of course more likely to be ever-present, but anyone could've forced their captain to keep selecting them by scoring points.
However, we're now at 30 points, as was the case in 2015 and 2017. On both occasions, more members of the Internationals played in every session - nine in total, four then five; for the US, it is seven in total, three then four.
The first four renewals offered 32 points - less than 2003 to 2013, more than 2015 and 2017, but with the minimum individual number of appearances also set at three. In two of the four, there were more Internationals who featured in every session; in the other two, it was a score-draw.
All told, across these six Presidents Cups, the Internationals have asked 35 players to go to the well and back in each and every session. The United States have limited their number to 28. It's not a huge gap, but a 25 per cent increase from USA to International has to be considered both significant and predictable.
If we look at those who have played the minimum number of matches, we again see the Internationals dominant with 19 versus 12. The theory is simple: the USA players are all excellent, and all will play plenty. There is less quality and less depth for an International captain, who is therefore more likely to lean heavily on some, and ease the burden on others, leaving fewer players in the middle.
Here, with Els having seven rookies in his side, it seems extremely likely that Scott, Matsuyama and Oosthuizen are involved at least four times. I would expect all of them to be penned to play all five sessions unless something happens which requires a change of plan. You can throw Leishman and Smith, surely a Thursday partnership, into this mix as well. If they click, like Grace and Oosthuizen in South Korea, they may play four matches together and therefore five in total.
It is also worth noting that, for the first time, the minimum number of individual appearances has been reduced to two. I suspect this rule change was brought in to allow Tiger to give himself an easy time of things should he need to, but in actual fact it's Els who is more likely to take advantage of it. There are players here, chiefly CT Pan and perhaps even Niemann and Hadwin, who could easily be hidden from view should things go array early on.
With that in mind, there's a really simple approach which makes straightforward appeal. Take the best prices about Scott and Oosthuizen, who are so well suited to Royal Melbourne. Scott has been a real force in singles lately and will see this is a great opportunity. He talks a lot about leaving his mark in the sport, and the best opportunity for him to do that, outside of winning The Open, is to lead his side to victory on home soil.
Last week's missed cut shouldn't put you off, especially as he played beautifully in round two. One bad round of golf aside, he's prepared really nicely for this and, while I'm far from certain who he's going to be teeing off with, I do expect him to carry more than his share of the load. He's one of three key men for Els and can rise to the challenge.
As for Oosthuizen, and why he's preferred to Matsuyama, last week's runner-up finish at The Australian certainly helps. It's also true that Matsuyama has struggled to learn English and hasn't been easy to pair, whereas Oosthuizen would slot in nicely with anyone. There's a chance they play together, but I expect Els will spread out his experience.
"I used this week as preparation for next and obviously I’ll take a lot of confidence out of this and hopefully we can pull it off next week," declared Oosthuizen on Sunday. "I’m ready. Game face is on now and I’m ready."
Here's hoping all of the Internationals are. This is a huge opportunity to beat a side who are more capable, but perhaps less well prepared, and certainly facing a real challenge in Australia. Els will be an inspiring captain, and his side can defy the odds.
Posted at 1725 GMT on 09/12/19.
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