CHARLOTTE — The bad news for International team captain Trevor Immelman and his band of 12 gritty golfers is that the final-day comebacks in the Presidents Cup are exceedingly rare. In the 13 previously playings of the matches, the trailing team entering Sunday singles has flipped the script and won only once, and that happened in 2019, when the Americans wiped out a small deficit (two points) to win in Melbourne. (In 2003, trailing by three, the Americans managed to tie.)
The good news is that the team match-play giant in the world of golf, the Ryder Cup, proves the International team’s 11-7 deficit is not insurmountable. At Brookline in 1999 and at Medinah in 2012, the team trailing by four points (10-6 in both instances) came back to win. Beyond those so-called “miracles,” there have been a few near-comebacks from similar deficits.
So, how does it happen? How does a team with a massive disadvantage turn things around in the space of 12 singles matches and make the unthinkable a reality? Let’s take a look at the most prominent examples in match-play history.
Speaking on Saturday evening, U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw famously said, “I’m a big believer in fate … I got a good feeling about this.” He was proven right on Sunday when the Americans took the first six matches en route to one of the greatest days in American team-golf history. Which brings us to the first absolute necessity for a big comeback:
You must seize the momentum early.
Tom Lehman, Hal Sutton, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Tiger Woods and David Duval didn’t just win. They took significant leads in a hurry and used the momentum of each other’s success to fill the scoreboard with American flags. That brought the American fans into the action and created a perfect climate for the comeback, which was completed when Justin Leonard made his epic putt.
There was another lesson from Brookline, and this one wasn’t quite as positive: The other captain must screw up.
Europe’s Mark James felt he had a weaker team than the Americans, and he made the choice to sit three of his players, Jarmo Sandelin, Jean Van de Velde and Andrew Coltart, through all four pairs sessions. By the time they played their first match in singles, they were cold, unprepared and exceedingly overmatched. James blew it further by placing them third through fifth in the order, where they ran into the buzzsaw of Phil Mickelson, Love and Woods. None of those matches made it to the 17th hole.
The third lesson is simpler still: You have to get lucky.
Great play, great strategy and errors by the opposing captain are all well and good, but to take 8½ points, you must have luck on your side. Whether it was Jose Maria Olazabal’s collapse against Leonard, the inexplicably bad play of even Europe’s veterans or the simple luck of the draw with match-ups, the Americans got the breaks they needed.
Here again, we look at the three lessons:
Seize momentum early—The Europeans won the first five matches on Sunday outside of Chicago, totally silencing the American crowd and creating a feeling of impending panic in the opposition.
The other captain screws up—Love, ironically captain of that American team as well, had not learned the lesson from Brookline and failed to frontload his lineup with strength.
“It still crushes me,” Love told me last year. “Not for me, but for the guys we put in a position not to succeed. We left them hanging … we should’ve sent Tiger Woods out first, just like we send the big guns out first since then. We learned a lot from it, but it’s a tough lesson.”
There was a poignant moment the next evening, when Love and Darren Clarke were chatting, and Clarke was still incredulous. “You know we’re going to load the boat,” he said. “Why weren’t you loading the boat?”
In an ironic twist, Love and Clarke would face off as captains four years later at Hazeltine, and Love would take that same 10-6 lead into Sunday. This time, he loaded the boat, and this time, he won.
The comeback team gets lucky—Look no further than Justin Rose’s absurd finish to his match against Mickelson, when he hit three long putts in a row—including an impossible bomb on 17—to win the match. If any one of those putts had missed, it’s likely the Americans would have won the Ryder Cup. That wasn’t the only example of good luck for the Europeans, but it was the most memorable.
1987—Trailing 10½-5½, the Americans won 5½ points in the first seven matches, but in fact got unlucky when Crenshaw’s putter broke after he hit the ground in frustration. He lost 1 down to Eamonn Darcy, the Americans lost the 18th hole over and over in tight matches late, and they fell just short, 15-13.
1997—Similar situation: Down 10½-5½, the Americans dominated singles, but couldn’t quite control the top of the lineup the way they needed to. In the end, though, they still got four points closer before falling 14½-13½, almost equaling the margin, if not the result, from Brookline.
It’s certainly possible that luck could fall on the side of the Internationals on Sunday, but if there’s bad news for Immelman, it’s that when it came time to pick the Sunday singles session, he faced an American captain in Love who had learned the harsh lesson of failing to front-load the lineup almost 10 years ago exactly. The top-loaded singles lineup you see from the Americans is no accident; Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns, Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele lead the way, and other than also inserting Max Homa, you could argue that these are Love’s strongest players.
In other words, Love made 100 percent sure that Immelman wouldn’t benefit from captain’s error and also did his best to safeguard against the Internationals winning a slew of opening matches to turn momentum against the Americans.
Can a comeback happen? Yes. But it’s going to be even more difficult than the extremely rare examples we’ve seen in the Ryder Cup, and smart money is still very much on Team USA.