Where Would a Presidents Cup Upset Rank? Let’s Break Down the Numbers
Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images. Pictured: International Team Captain Trevor Immelman of South Africa.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — So much of the conversation here at this week’s Presidents Cup has revolved around whether the International team can pull off the unthinkable, somehow defeating the heavily favored United States squad.
It’s become such a storyline, in fact, that this is no longer simply an underlying subplot, but the main theme of the competition. In 13 previous editions of this event, the U.S. boasts a robust 11-1-1 record, with the lone International victory taking place nearly a quarter-century ago.
The underdogs came close in 2019, falling by just two points in Australia, but this current roster faces a unique set of challenges — not the least of which is losing potential team members Cameron Smith, Joaquin Niemann, Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer following their defection to the LIV Golf Invitational Series.
What’s left is a team whose highest-ranked player, Hideki Matsuyama, is currently 17th on the Official World Golf Ranking, while the opponent’s average ranking on the 12-man roster — yes, average — is better than 12th.
The captains are aware of this discrepancy, because, well, we’re all aware of it, each of them sitting down in the Quail Hollow interview room this week to proffer their best colloquialisms for the situation.
“We're the favorite,” said U.S. captain Davis Love III. “That's on paper, and a lot of great coaches will tell you the game's not played on paper.”
“We're the underdogs,” countered International captain Trevor Immelman. “I do think that it frees us up, because we have nothing to lose.”
All of which has led to the masses asking the following question: If the International team should triumph this week, it would surely be one of the greatest upsets in the history of golf’s team competitions, but where would it rank amongst the greatest upsets in sports?
The answer: It wouldn’t even be the biggest this month.
Let’s rewind a little bit. As of a month ago, before the final rosters had been set and before some of those LIV defectors were disqualified from the competition, the U.S. team was the favorite, right around -300 in most sportsbooks. Once the rosters were announced, that number quickly jumped to -500 or shorter and by this week, you’d be hard-pressed to find them at anything but -700 in a three-way outright result wager.
That price is equivalent to the moneyline for a football team that is right around a 16.5-point favorite — and yes, you can probably already see where we’re going with this.
It leaves the International side at +700, the implied probability being that if this exact event was played seven times, Immelman’s side would win one of ‘em. Based on the disparity between these two teams, that might be giving them too much credit, though we all know these things aren’t played on paper — or perhaps more relevant, inside devices that are calculating analytic data. Hey, even the cliches have to get with the times.
Now, think about the greatest single-competition upsets in the history of sports.
Buster Douglas defeating Mike Tyson certainly comes to mind — and it should be noted that Douglas drifted to a 42-1 underdog at the betting windows before that 1990 bout.
The Miracle on Ice? Any tickets have long since been cashed or buried, but recent estimations have the U.S. hockey team at about 10-1 to defeat the USSR in that semifinal game.
And golf certainly has its share of memorable surprises, though Frances Ouimet or Jack Fleck or Ben Curtis winning a major championship over an entire field is sufficiently incongruous to any head-to-head type of competition.
All of which brings us back to this week’s event. In a bubble, the International team is a massive underdog, worthy of all the talking points about whether an undermanned squad can pull off the improbable. When we look big-picture, though, a potential victory shouldn’t be considered among sports’ greatest upsets — at least based on the betting odds.
As alluded to earlier, an International win wouldn’t even supersede Marshall’s victory over Notre Dame a few weeks ago, when the Thundering Herd entered as a 20.5-point ‘dog, which put them just shy of 10-1 on the moneyline.
College football alone offers more upsets on a regular basis than we could see in golf this week — again, based on the numbers — from Kansas defeating Texas as a 31-point underdog last season to Howard beating UNLV in 2017 despite a 45-point spread.
And if we extend this to global sports, such as soccer or rugby, there are plenty more examples of bigger upsets than a +700 winner.
None of which should take away from the International team’s accomplishment — or perhaps just as importantly, the U.S. team’s failure — should another upset take place this week. Let’s just hold off on potentially ranking it amongst the biggest ever. The numbers will prove otherwise.