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Americans sitting on the cusp of victory

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Nick Price had the look of a man who had not slept all week. His hair disheveled, his eyes drooping, there was little he could say and no need to try to emote optimism.

Price is a straight shooter — just like he was hitting a driver during his years as the No. 1 player in the world — and spinning this situation at the Presidents Cup was all but impossible.

A difficult task at the outset turned into an outlandish rout. And that was by Friday night. Any hope of turning it into a viable competition was gone by lunchtime Saturday, when the United States won three foursomes matches and tied the fourth. And the whole thing was all but decided by darkness.

There was the chance the U.S. could close out the competition by Saturday afternoon, and it nearly happened as the Americans hold a 14½ to 3½ lead going into Sunday’s singles matches. The U.S. needs a single point to win the Presidents Cup and run its record to 10-1-1 in this competition.

The “exhibition” will truly be an exhibition on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s very hard. Very hard,” said Price, trying to explain how a group of players with plenty of pedigree could look so ordinary over the past three days. “These guys are trying. It doesn’t look like we are trying but we are trying very hard.

“The guys are a little down. It’s tough. The momentum has swung against us.”

Momentum has been going against the International side since 2005. The U.S. has now led following 30 consecutive sessions going back 12 years, meaning the International team always finds itself fighting from behind, negativity building while the Americans keep amassing confidence.

To show how thoroughly one-sided this competition has become, Dustin Johnson has more points (4) than the entire International team (3½).

It is remarkable in the context of the Ryder Cup, which has been such a frustrating experience for the Americans over the past two decades. Phil Mickelson likely serves as the best example, as he has played on 11 Ryder Cup teams and experienced victory just three times. This is his 12th Presidents Cup team, and he has experienced just one loss and a tie.

“I do think there is a more relaxed, fun attitude by both teams [at the Presidents Cup],” Mickelson said. “But when Thursday comes around, we tee off [and] we’re representing our country, representing our teammates, representing ourselves. You feel it. You feel that pressure.”

Perhaps the Americans deal with it better because they are more used to it, playing a Cup competition every year.

Certainly the Americans are more adept at playing an awkward format such as foursomes, which has long been an International team struggle.

Price, who lobbied former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to lower the total number of points — thus limiting the Americans’ depth advantage — was at first rebuffed before the competition was reduced from 34 points to 30 points in 2015.

And sure enough, the International team finally made a game of it, forcing the competition well into the Sunday singles in South Korea, two late matches going the Americans’ way as they eked out a 1-point victory.

With eight International players returning from that team, there was understandably a good bit of optimism coming to Liberty National.

“I think Korea kind of went a long way to rekindling some excitement from all aspects of the Cup,” said Adam Scott. “I think that was a very exciting event, certainly as a player coming down to the last match on the last hole. It had been six years probably since there was a close Cup, and I think surely people enjoyed watching that. It took a step in the right direction.”

And now it has taken a big step back.

Through three days and four sessions — a total of 18 matches — a team that has major champions such as Scott, Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen along with the No. 3-ranked player in the world in Hideki Matsuyama has won just two matches. There have also been three ties.

Getting blown out in this fashion is not what anyone had in mind, and has already led many to wonder about alterations to the event. Some have surmised that it can’t continue — which is ignoring all of the hospitality venues, ticket sales and television rights fees that the PGA Tour enjoys regardless of the outcome.

“I don’t think anything’s going to change,” said U.S. captain Steve Stricker. “It’s still a great competition. The Ryder Cup at one point was that way [noncompetitive] and look what it is today.”

The Ryder Cup, of course, changed dramatically after all of Europe was added to Great Britain & Ireland in 1979. The competition has been riveting for most of the past 30 years, much of it filled with U.S. angst.

Will the Presidents Cup ever get there? Maybe. Certainly places like South Africa and Australia will continue to produce top golfers. More and more are emerging from countries such as Japan, China and South Korea. South America, too, has seen golf grow.

There have been many times — think back to the days of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Price, Greg Norman and Vijay Singh — when the International side appeared more stout.

But some of this can simply be put down to golf. The United States, on paper, has the stronger team, with Mickelson at No. 30 in the world the lowest-ranked American; the U.S. has four players from the top 10.

The International side goes down to No. 68 with Anirban Lahiri and has just two players in the top 10 and five in the top 25 compared with the U.S., which has 10 in the top 25.

Still, 18 holes of match play is the great equalizer, and the difference between the top players in the world and those hovering around 60th can be slight. We see it all the time at the annual WGC-Match Play Championship, where “upsets” of higher-ranked players are common.

“We are still fighting our hearts out,” said Branden Grace. “They are just outplaying us. I don’t think any of the games, the guys are particularly playing badly.”

But nobody has played great. Matsuyama has been struggling since the PGA Championship and was benched on Saturday morning. Day had a resurgence during the FedEx Cup playoffs but did not win in 2017 and has had an abysmal Presidents Cup record over the last three Cups. Scott, pegged as a leader and mentor, has gone 0-3.

Meanwhile, the Americans have seen a strong new team develop in Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, who are 2-0-1. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have been a formidable team through a fourth Cup competition. Daniel Berger is a fiery addition, and Dustin Johnson is almost an afterthought even though he’s also been one of America’s best players.

That’s golf, and there is a slew of American players who know the feeling — including Stricker, assistant captains Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk, and Mickelson — from numerous Ryder Cup disappointments.

None of that is any consolation to Price. The Hall of Famer is one of the game’s all-time good guys, a three-time major champion who has been unable to coax a victory out of his International team in three tries as its leader.

As much as the Presidents Cup is supposed to be about goodwill, it is no fun losing.

“We are all competitors and we all like to compete and we don’t like to get beaten,” Price said. “I think that’s the bottom line. We’re competitive.”

For this week, at least, it just didn’t appear that way.

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