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Tiger, Steve matchup gets thrown out early

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MELBOURNE, Australia – You’ve heard of the “Thrilla in Manila?” The “Rumble in the Jungle?” Well, this has all the trappings of the “Duel Down Under.” The “Sandbelt Skirmish.” The “Blue at Black Rock.”

Leave your golf clap at home, this is not your father’s Presidents Cup. Not with Tiger vs. Stevie . . . eh, make that Scottie atop the marquee. Not with the title bout everyone wanted looming on Day 1 at Royal Melbourne.

The golf world wanted Tiger Woods and Steve Sricker vs. Adam Scott and the guy paired with Adam Scott – K.J. Choi for those scoring at home – and captains Fred Couples and Greg Norman happily obliged. What follows promises to have all the buzz of a heavyweight tilt that Las Vegas would be proud of.

So much so one half expects a microphone to drop from the clear Australian skies above venerable Royal Melbourne’s first tee Thursday afternoon and iconic announcer Michael Buffer to bark, “Let’s get ready to rumble.”

Just the way Couples and Norman wanted it.

Not that either skipper would admit to such a contrived conclusion. On Wednesday at Royal Melbourne the captains told anyone that would listen that the match of the year was little more than happenstance, pure cosmic tumblers stuff.

“It’s great for the tournament,” Norman said. “It needed to play out the way it played out. There was no premeditation. . . . If we have to defuse anything and get this over and done with wouldn’t you rather do it early instead of it coming down to the Sunday singles?”

As for Couples, “we did not plan anything.”

Sounds good, but the way the chess-match pairings session went down it seemed the captains had no interest in avoiding the high-profile elephant in the Royal Melbourne room. There was no prearranged quid pro quo. There didn’t need to be.

As the winning captain from 2009 Couples deferred the first team selection to Norman, just like he did at Harding Park, and waited patiently as the “Shark” marched out his team.

“I put in (assistant captains Frank) Nobilo and (Tim) Clark,” the Shark smiled.

Then came the formalities, or undercards depending on one’s point of view:

Bubba Watson-Webb Simpson versus Ryo Ishikawa-Ernie Els; Bill Haas-Nick Watney against Geoff Ogilvy-Charl Schwartzel; Dustin Johnson-Matt Kuchar playing Aaron Baddeley-Jason Day; Phil Mickelson-Jim Furyk against Retief Goosen-Robert Allenby; Hunter Mahan-David Toms versus K.T. Kim-Y.E. Yang . . .

“Who is left?” American assistant captain Jay Haas deadpanned, as if anyone in the Southern Hemisphere with even a passing interest in this week’s matches didn’t know.

For three weeks Woods and his former caddie Stevie Williams had been dancing around and toward this inevitable clash, ever since the Kiwi, who now loops for Scott, caused a firestorm with a racial slur directed at Woods.

This wasn’t so much a conspiracy as it was an inevitable conclusion. Officials at last week’s Australian Open ducked the issue, foregoing a possible Woods-Scott pairing in the run-up to this week’s matches. Norman and Couples had no such reservations.

“It needed to be done,” Norman said.

This will not be the first time Woods and Scott have played against each Other at the biennial matches. The Aussie is 1-1 against Woods following foursome matches in 2007, which he lost, and 2005, which he won with Woods paired with Couples no less.

It will, however, be the first time Woods has played with Scott since he and Williams split earlier this summer. It was always going to be a headline, but Williams’ comments in Shanghai during the WGC-HSBC Champions just made it a front-page 70-point job.

This much is certain about Woods: he catalogs slights, either real or perceived, and pulls on an internal bulletin board for extra motivation. Sending him out in the anchor position with Scott and the litany of Williams’ subtext only promises to give Red Shirt that much more incentive.

When asked if Woods requested the mano-a-mano pairing, assistant captain John Cook’s answer was clear and convincing: “He doesn’t care. There was no discussion, all he wanted to do is go out first or last.”

Although he said he had no great interest in a Woods-Scott clash, Couples had plenty of opportunities to send his uber-pairing of Woods and Stricker out against someone not named Scott. Maybe it was a fluke, a competitive anomaly with no regard for TV ratings or popular opinion.

Either way, it was a move so savvy even iconic promoter Don King would have been proud.

“You know, there's more to this thing than where you slot the players. Like Greg said, and we were right here, we were writing down cards and it's just the way it felt, and I think it would be worse if we hid this deal,” Couples said. “It's not just Adam Scott and Tiger Woods. There's 22 other players here.”

Fair enough. But the “Thrilla in Manila” was all about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The “Rumble in the Jungle” had Ali and George Foreman. And the “Duel Down Under” is all about Woods and Scott. Well, Woods, Scott and Williams.


Watch wall-to-wall coverage of the Presidents Cup live on Golf Channel. Tournament air times: Golf Channel Wednesday 9PM-2AM, Thursday 7:30PM-2AM, Friday 3PM-2AM and Saturday 6:30PM-12:30AM. NBC coverage Saturday at 8AM and Sunday at noon. (Note: all times are ET)