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The Presidents Cup Comes of Age

Golf as it ought to be presented.

By 9.27.05

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The Presidents Cup, that obviously made-for-TV poor sister come lately to the party imitator of the Ryder Cup, came of age this past week with thrilling shotmaking, topsy-turvy matches, and a proof-in-the-doing validation for its one day longer format. (The Ryder Cup has two days of team play starting on Friday; singles matches on Sunday. The Presidents Cup starts on Thursday and has three days of team matches; singles on Sunday.)

From its start in 1994, it was obvious the PC couldn't compete with the near century old RC for the kind of heritage and legend the golf world loves. First Ryder Cup captains were Walter Hagen for the Americans and Ted Ray for the Brits. The captains themselves have always been legendary, through Tony Jacklin and Bernard Gallacher for the Europeans and Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson for the United States. The competition then was U.S. vs. U.K. only. The American side, lopsidedly strong, won every match until 1957. Two teams, from 1951 and 1957 give an idea of the superiority of the U.S. side. In 1951, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Jack Burke Jr., and Lloyd Mangrum are on the U.S. team. In 1973: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Billy Casper, Tom Weiskopf, Lou Graham, and Homero Blancas.

When the British side added continental Europe to its list of eligible player countries, the Ryder Cup took off as a commercial success, and the sides evened up. In 1991, the so-called "War by the Shore" at Kiowah Country Club introduced partisan exuberance -- and excess -- to the tournament, with flags snapping in the fiendish winds and soccer-fan type chanting and singing. That combative atmosphere reached its nadir in 1999 at the Country Club in Brookline where Boston's brutally nasty fans mocked and needled Scotland's Colin Montgomery's every move, and where the Americans pulled off a last-day come from behind victory of overwhelming emotionalism under Captain Ben Crenshaw, exhibiting behavior of their own that was excoriated in the European press for the next year.

SO WHEN THE PRESIDENTS CUP came along, how could it stand up? It had no history, no great fireside stories to tell of unbeatable two-man teams (Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, then Olazabal and Sergio Garcia) and acts of great chivalry (Jack Nicklaus conceding the final winning putt to Tony Jacklin in 1969 at Royal Birkdale). It had no great historic venues. It had advertisers and by 2000 it had Bill Clinton serve as honorary chairman. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush had so served in 1994 and 1996, as had Primer Minister John Howard in 1998, when the event was staged in Australia. A political crony of PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, no small consideration, Clinton became the first acting President to serve in the chairmanship. He took it very seriously. It was at this Presidents Cup that the Clinton reportedly refused to take a call from his military advisers saying they had Osama bin Laden in their sights and could they please kill him. Clinton was too busy stylin' in shades among the stars.

The Presidents Cup would work splendidly as part of Finchem's overall scheme to schedule more sanctioned "world" competition and more match play (of that, more in a minute). And it would satisfy the all-too-many would-be golf advertisers who kept asking, "Why doesn't Greg Norman play the Ryder Cup? Boy, would that be a buy!" and who weren't satisfied with the explanation that the Ryder Cup was limited to Americans and Europeans and that Greg Norman was neither. So a bunch of good guys were getting left out of a big, important way to play golf, and the Tour was missing out on a big, important way to make money.

Sorry, advertisers. Norman did not play in the first PC, and neither did Tiger Woods, who had just arrived on Tour a few months before. Three big U.S. stars played, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, and Fred Couples. On the International side, only Nick Price and Steve Elkington really qualified for that status. There were plenty of guys in the "who?" category for the non-everyday golf fan: John Huston, Corey Pavin, and Scott Hoch on the U.S. side; Bradley Hughes, Fulton Allem, Mark McNulty, and somebody named Watanabe, whom even I don't remember, on the International team.

Even by 1998, when the Cup matches traveled to Australia, the dominant international country in terms of number of players, for the third staging, the jokes persisted: One bunch of guys from Orlando travels halfway across the world to play another bunch of guys from Orlando.

ENOUGH. BY 1998, TIGER HAD SHOWED UP, and so had Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, and Vijay Singh. With Woods and Mickelson, the now-top-five ranked players in the world played regularly for three successive Cups. A generation of players has completely shifted, leaving only Davis Love III and Fred Couples from the old glory days of the Ryder Cups in the '80s and '90s. The U.S. had lost a few Ryder Cups, always a spur, and the same players played on American sides for both Ryder and Presidents Cups. The event had mostly gotten past the "International" lack of real cultural or political identity, embodied in its woozy, misty "flag." And maybe that was a positive overall, avoiding jingoism.

Most important, after the American team went down to a drubbing in Australia in 1998, the competition cranked up several notches, and two evenly matched teams went at each other, giving no quarter, in the 2003 and 2005 matches, the first in South Africa finishing in the dark in a dead-even draw, and the last just concluding Sunday here at the Robert Trent Jones course in Manassas, Virginia, the place where the tournament had begun, and fought down to the last two points.

The event featured the kind of brilliant shotmaking, not just by a few players, but by virtually everybody, that often characterizes match play. In match play, each hole is contested with the winner of the match winning the most holes out of 18. Matches often end before the eighteenth hole; indeed, could conclude as early as the tenth if one player won the first ten holes, with a result stated as "10 and eight," meaning ten holes won with eight to play.

At this level of professionalism, most often matches end three-and-two or two-and-one, or even "one up" (the winner wins the last hole) or "all square" (tied).

Match play encourages aggression, because the worst that can happen is to lose a hole, not (say) take seven shots to get down on a par four with every extra shot registered.

For another wrinkle, Ryder and Presidents Cup meets add three days of two kinds of two-man team competition. In "foursomes" or "alternate shot," the two players on a team hit alternate shots with a same ball -- one man drives, his partner hits second, the first man hits third, etc., until the hole is decided between two teams. In "four ball," each player plays his own ball and hits every shot, and the best score of the four determines which team wins the hole. One player, indeed, can be "out of the hole," and his partner can nonetheless go on to win or tie the score posted by the opposing team's two players.

You never know, literally till the last shot on every hole, who will win that hole. For the first four holes of Sunday's singles matches, Tiger Woods played Retief Goosen, the South African two-time U.S. Open champ whose name looks like an anagram. (Goosen's countryman, fellow top-fiver Ernie Els, missed this cup with an injury.) Woods scored birdies on three of the four. He won only one of those holes.

On the par-three second, Woods hit his tee shot to within 18 inches of the cup. Goosen conceded him the birdie and then chipped in from the deep rough behind the green. A seemingly certain Woods win became a "half" (tie). On the par-five third, Woods outdrove Goosen by 20 yards and stuck his tee shot 15 feet from the hole for an eagle. Goosen, aboard in two but 45 feet away, sank the long putt for an eagle of his own. Tiger missed his eagle, and lost. On the fourth, Tiger returned the favor and chipped in from the fringe for a birdie, taking the hole.

And the U.S. solved a long-standing riddle, when it found two successful two-man teams for the foursomes and four-ball competitions, a part of both Ryder and Presidents Cups where Americans had traditionally done very badly. Add to the team legends in the making Chris DiMarco paired with Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk paired with Tiger Woods. Each team won three matches.

(An aside: Perhaps Americans have paid too much attention to the requirement that foursomes partners play with the same ball, same brand, markings, and type. Big-time players have big-time endorsement contracts with ball manufacturers. Captains have tended to play Titleist players with Titleist players, Bridgestone players with Bridgestone players, and so forth. Not this time. Tiger and Furyk, DiMarco and Mickelson, asked to play with one another. Woods endorses Nike, Furyk Top Flite. DiMarco plays Titleist, Mickelson signed two years ago with Callaway. Didn't matter.)

IN TEAM COMPETITION, AS IN many other things, the tournament benefited from tweaking of the format. The Presidents Cup, for the past three meets, has adopted an extra half day of team play, giving coaches a chance to mix and match players better than in the two-day team format it formerly shared with the Ryder Cup. Last-day singles matches, it was decided this year, would have to be won outright, even if going to extra holes. It had formerly been possible to earn half a point with a tie on the last day. No more.

The Ryder Cup ought to adopt both changes, but probably won't.

As usual, some down-list players had a tough time, and some played brilliantly. Some did both. The Internationals' Tim Clark and Nick O'Hern (who?) putted the heart of the holes and their U.S. opponents in team play. Then on Sunday they both looked like they were putting with oars. Kenny Perry and, to a lesser extent, Davis Love, putted feebly during the week, than sank everything on Sunday on their way to decisive wins.

So the stories have begun. Tiger Woods suffered a muscle spasm in the middle of the left trapezius complex (the three big muscles that connect the spine to the left shoulder). Johnny Miller spotted it when it happened, and re-ran it in slo-mo for the TV audience. As Tiger took his backswing, that big triangular muscle complex bunched up in a flex. As he took his through swing, the muscle flattened out in release -- but it did not stay flat. Halfway through the motion, it flexed again in a spasm, in a great heaping, almost pointed clump, sharply outlined against Tiger's sweaty shirt on a 90-degree day in Virginia.

It was clinical and horrible and it was never shown again.

Tiger's partner Jim Furyk, injured himself with a rib separation, carried the world's number one to three team wins while a trainer followed Woods, pressing ice against his jumping, throbbing muscle.

And an unlikely hero came through in team play and in the match for the deciding point. Chris DiMarco, who throughout the tournament, won four and a half of five possible points, and who carried superstar Phil Mickelson, sank a 15-footer for birdie on the eighteenth hole in the next-to-last match to beat Stuart Appleby. Appleby, for the Internationals, had also emerged from similar status (few wins, no majors) to display consistent brilliance for his team.

Can't make jokes about the Presidents Cup anymore. It has arrived, and the players and the fans care.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.