Presidents Cup reflection of golf's landscape
One thing already can be said for this Presidents Cup. The Americans have come a long way.
Only it has nothing to do with the oceans and time zones they crossed to get Down Under. Nor is progress measured by the outcome, for the Americans have lost this event only once since it began in 1994.
It's all about their willingness to travel amid the changing landscape in golf.
The Presidents Cup returns to Royal Melbourne for the first time in 13 years, and just think how differently golf looked back then from an American perspective. It was late in the season - the second week in December - some six weeks after the Tour Championship. Hardly anyone was playing meaningful golf. Even fewer felt like going all the way to Australia.
The International team handed the United States its worst loss in any team competition. The score was 20 1/2-11 1/2, such a blowout that the cup was secured when Nick Price beat David Duval in the second of 12 singles matches on the final day.
''Got beat and still had time to eat breakfast,'' Duval said with a laugh.
That was the year before the World Golf Championships began, a series of tournaments for players around the world, and originally designed to be played around the world.
But in the first year, a half-dozen Americans from the top 50 in the world chose not to go to Spain at the end of the season. And when the Match Play Championship went to Australia two years later, so many players stayed away - most of them Americans - that the tournament went down to No. 104 in the ranking (Greg Kraft) to fill the 64-man field.
That led to Stuart Appleby's famous line about Americans.
''They're like a bag of prawns on a hot Sunday,'' he once said. ''They don't travel well.''
Now those passport pages are filling up quickly.
U.S. captain Fred Couples wanted his two captain's picks to play the week before in the Australian Open, and was pleased that six other players joined them. Some of them started even earlier.
Jim Furyk, Bill Haas, Hunter Mahan, David Toms and Nick Watney were in Shanghai the week before at the HSBC Champions. Furyk and Mahan were in China even earlier, playing the Shanghai Masters. Phil Mickelson was in Singapore last week. After the Presidents Cup, Matt Kuchar is headed to China for the World Cup.
They worry less about the destination and more about what time the plane leaves.
''I think it's fantastic the way Americans have embraced the way global golf is played nowadays,'' International captain Greg Norman said Tuesday. ''The season post-Tour Championship gives them the validity of going to Shanghai or Singapore or down here to Melbourne or other places around the world to play. And those opportunities, the guys are taking.''
The shocker might have been Toms in Shanghai.
He played overseas when he was young because he had not made it onto the PGA Tour and had few other options. Once he established himself, Toms found little need to travel except for the British Open or the Ryder Cup. The prize money was minimal, and whatever appearance money he received wasn't always worth the trip.
But there he was at the HSBC Champions - the same week of the LSU-Alabama game, no less. Toms acted like a true pro, too. The game was on Sunday morning, he wasn't in contention, yet the LSU alum was on the range an hour before his round, just like always.
Watney takes about every opportunity that comes his way overseas. He gave up Thanksgiving one year to play the World Cup with John Merrick. He has become a regular in Shanghai.
''I just believe that to be a truly great player, you have to win all around the world,'' Watney said.
Dustin Johnson might take up European Tour membership next year. Bubba Watson went to France, although he lasted all of two days at the French Open and couldn't get home fast enough.
Norman says more travel, especially this time of the year, could make the matches closer this time. But he looked beyond that to a broader picture of Americans getting out more.
''Look, it's the responsibility of every player, no matter what their position is, to promote the game on a global basis,'' Norman said. ''And I like to see what the Americans are doing, traveling and playing overseas.''
Ernie Els was talking about the history of the Presidents Cup a few weeks ago, how the only two times the International team did not lose was in Melbourne and South Africa (the famous tie). Not so coincidentally, his team had the crowd on its side.
And then there was that other ''road'' game in Montreal in 2007.
''All due respect to my great friend Mike Weir, but why go to Canada?'' Els said.
There was a reason for that.
After the plunder Down Under in 1998, and with South Africa already planned for the next road game, there was enough concern about Americans traveling a long distance for the Presidents Cup that the tour made it easy on them by going north of the border.
That's no longer necessary. The next overseas Presidents Cup in 2015 is likely headed to either South America (depending on the state of the Olympic golf course being built in Brazil) or Asia, with South Korea a prime candidate. This year's International team has a record four Asian players.
Els was on his way to the first tee for a practice round when asked about this crop of Americans being more willing to travel. He was more concerned about his own itinerary - Singapore last week, Australia this week, South Africa next week.
''The only trouble is it's so bloody far to get down here,'' he said.
The Big Easy laughed when it was pointed out to him that as a South African, he had no choice but to go bloody far to get anywhere.
''These American boys are starting to travel a bit more,'' he said. ''And it's good to see.''