Tiger Woods could barely see the hole in the darkness of South Africa when he made a 15-foot par putt in a playoff against Ernie Els that broke two directions. He called it “one of the biggest putts in my life,” and “one of the most nerve-racking moments I’ve ever had in golf.” Usually, such talk is reserved for the majors.
Fred Couples never showed more exuberance than the time he made a 20-foot birdie on the last hole to beat Vijay Singh.
And while the International flag represents countries from all continents except Europe, Mike Weir faced enormous expectations and a Maple Leaf at every turn when he played on home soil in Canada against the world’s best player. He won the last two holes to beat Woods, which came with a cheer so loud that captain Gary Player said it could be heard “all the way to Kansas City.”
In 15 years of these biennial matches, there is no shortage of highlights.
What the Presidents Cup lacks is competition.
The Americans already lead the series 5-1-1. They have never lost on home soil, and will have a chance to keep that record perfect when the eighth edition of these matches is played Oct. 8-11 at Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco.
The only time the International team won was in 1998 at Royal Melbourne in Australia, held so late in the year that some of the Americans spent more time Christmas shopping online. At least that was their excuse.
The players are just as good, if not better, than at the Ryder Cup. Each team at Harding Park has seven major champions (with 35 majors among them). Europe’s team from last year’s Ryder Cup had only one major winner.
Of the 24 players at the Presidents Cup, 18 are among the top 30 in the world ranking.
Even so, perhaps the best Ryder Cup comparison is from the early days of the competition, which was clearly a red, white and blue affair.
“We need to win,” Geoff Ogilvy of Australia said. “It’s going to take the International team winning a few times to annoy the U.S., to get them geared up like they are in the Ryder Cup.”
No one can explain why these matches have been so one-sided.
This will be the fifth time that the Presidents Cup is held in the United States, although that shouldn’t matter because all but three players on the International team have homes in America, and all but one player – Ryo Ishikawa – is a PGA Tour member.
“The Presidents Cup is like playing with your buddies,” Kenny Perry said. “The International squad is like the guys we play with week in and week out here. We know each other, we’re all good friends. A lot of barbing, jabbing going on out there. And it’s really fun.”
The International team has been favored on paper for much of this decade, although the only time it could claim even a half-victory was when the matches ended in that famous tie in South Africa.
Last time in Royal Montreal, the International team did not win any of the 11 foursomes matches and was seven points behind going into the final day of singles, which turned out to be a formality except for Weir beating Woods.
The big change this year is the captains. After three straight tournaments led by Nicklaus and Player, Couples will be leading the U.S. team, while Greg Norman is captain of the International side.
Couples has lived up to expectations – he has kept everyone loose, he doesn’t answer his phone (mainly text messages), and he has asked basketball great Michael Jordan to be one of his assistant captains.
Norman has been a surprise, mostly with his captain’s picks.
He selected Ishikawa, an 18-year-old sensation from Japan who becomes the youngest player in Presidents Cup history. Ishikawa has won four times this year, and his appearance already has added close to 100 requests for media credentials.
The stunning pick was Adam Scott, who has fallen out of the top 50 because of a mysterious slump that has put him 101st on the PGA Tour money list. Scott was planning for maintenance surgery on his knee when Norman gave him the good news.
“I think he’s got a lot of pressure on him,” Els said. “From us, we will support him. I know I will, and I know Greg will. But he’s going to be under the spotlight a little bit. But you know, this is maybe something he needs.”
Camilo Villegas, Ishikawa and PGA champion Y.E. Yang are newcomers to the Presidents Cup, while the American rookies are Sean O’Hair and Anthony Kim, who energized the U.S. team last September at the Ryder Cup.
The Americans are considered the favorites, based on recent history and world rankings.
It has the current version of the “Big Three” – Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, not only ranked Nos. 1-2-3, but winners of the last three playoff events on the PGA Tour. It has five of the top 10 players in the world, and it’s lowest-ranked player is Justin Leonard at No. 37.
Ogilvy at No. 10 is the only International player in the top 10, and seven of his teammates have failed to win this year – Els, Villegas, Scott, Weir, Vijay Singh, Robert Allenby and Tim Clark.
“Maybe this time we’ll be more relaxed and pull it off,” Retief Goosen said.
Ogilvy had just turned professional in 1998 when he took a shortcut from his house near Royal Melbourne, hopped the fence and watched the Presidents Cup. There was something about those matches that has since been missing from the competition, starting with the International blue on the scoreboard.
“When it was in Australia, the International team looked like the winner even after nine holes,” Ogilvy said. “I said to Greg, ‘Whatever you had going on at Royal Melbourne, whatever that thing is, you’ve got to find it.’ It’s not about the individual, it’s about how bad the team wants to win.”
The International team is desperate for a win. The Presidents Cup as a whole could use such a victory, too.