As the 2019 Presidents Cup kicks off in Australia, few could blame the International team for being a little intimidated. The American team has a much higher average rank and includes 5 of the top-10 ranked golfers in the world. In fact, the Americans have 8 of their 12 golfers ranked higher than the highest ranked International squad member, the Australian Adam Scott currently sitting at 15th in the world. Compounding the gloom is the International team’s dismal record in the competition, losing 12 of 14 contests. But if there is one thing the underdogs can take heart in, it’s that this year’s tournament at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club takes place at the same venue as their sole triumph.
Before the First Tee
The Americans entered the tournament clear favorites. Boasting superstars in Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III, the Americans had also won the first 2 editions of the Presidents Cup. Despite 1998 being the first year the tournament was played outside of America, the golf media made the International team clear underdogs. However, the International team had its own stars, with none bigger than hall of famers Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, and Greg Norman.
The Massacre in Melbourne
The problem, then as now, was getting a forged identity from golfers from very different and far-flung areas of the globe as South Africa, Japan, and Australia to have something to rally around. Team captain Peter Thomson decided to use national pride as one way to get his team to compete, pairing his 2 New Zealanders together, as well as making pairing of Japanese and Australian golfers, respectively. Thomson hoped these pairings could make an impression in the early rounds.
The tournament began in stifling Australian heat and it soon became clear that the International team came to compete. The pairing of Shigeki Maruyama and Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki in particular proved deadly, beating pairings of Mark Calcavecchia and John Huston, and later David Duval and Phil Mickelson in fourball. By the end of Day 2, the International team was winning 7 ½ - 2 ½, a lead they extended to 14 ½ - 5 ½ before beginning the final singles matches. When it was all over, the Americans lost by 9 full points to their rivals.
The Americans have often pointed to this loss to primarily their lack of preparation and planning but make no mistake: the International team played them off the course. An example would be Frank Nobilo, one of the captain’s picks, sinking a 40 foot putt to take a full point over the team of Duval and Mark O’Meara.
The Smiling Assassin
A special mention is needed for Shigeki Maruyama, nicknamed the Smiling Assassin, for his undefeated 5-0-0 performance. Maruyama was little known outside his native Japan, but proved a monster on the course. Quickly adopted by the local fans for his buoyant affable personality, Maruyama proved deadly on the green. The win would propel Maruyama to a higher profile, eventually going on to play and win on the PGA Tour.
Despite the dominant performance in 1998, the International team has failed to win another tournament and has often capitulated early. In the 11 Presidents Cups since their win, they have only managed 1 tie, with the US winning all but 2015 by a margin of 3 or more points. Time will tell if this year’s talented bunch can recapture the magic of 1998 to end American dominance.