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Just for fun, Jack? Players would disagree

Jack Nicklaus
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Tiger Woods shot 24-under 264 for a three-stroke win over Jim Furyk. (Getty Images)  - 

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The following is one man’s assessment of the Presidents Cup: “The guys should have fun. It's a goodwill competition. It's for bragging rights.”

Hey, a single opinion isn’t that important. Except when that single opinion comes from the mind of none other than Jack Nicklaus, 18-time major winner, four-time captain and resident Big Cheese here at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

I’m not one to contradict Jack – er, Mr. Nicklaus – especially in his own house, so on the eve of this year’s edition of the competition coming to a (hopefully) dramatic conclusion, allow me to leave that chore to the men wearing red, white and blue.

If this were just for fun … Tiger Woods wouldn’t be stalking the fairways with that major championship glare in his eyes. He wouldn’t be gritting his teeth and walking after shots and pumping his fist if this were all just fun and games. In case you haven’t noticed over the years, Tiger isn’t capable of pretending to care when he really doesn’t. It’s not in his DNA.

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If this were only for goodwill … Zach Johnson wouldn’t have celebrated like he won the lottery when he holed an approach shot on No. 15 to culminate a come-from-behind foursomes victory on Saturday afternoon. And it certainly wouldn’t have drawn a smile from his laconic partner Jason Dufner, who was so excited about the win that he gave Johnson a little chest bump.

If this were solely for bragging rights … Fred Couples wouldn’t be mopping his brow and pursing his lips and generally spending the week looking as un-Fred Couples-like as could be. The United States captain is usually the very picture of coolness, but this week, as former team member Justin Leonard once described him, “He's like a duck on the water. He's very smooth and calm on the surface, but underneath he's paddling like crazy.”

Those are simply examples, not meant to single out specific participants as caring more than others, because the truth is, they all do.

And they’ve all heard the not-so-quiet whispers, too. This isn’t as important as the Ryder Cup. The players don’t care about winning. It doesn’t mean that much to them. Here’s the problem with that: Just because you don’t care that much doesn’t mean they don’t, either.

That’s not to compare this event to its biennial brethren. If there’s a difference between the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup, it exists in the pressure.

At the Ryder Cup, the hopes of a nation rest on the shoulders of those competing. But the Presidents Cup? The nation hopes for a win in between checking its collective fantasy football scores.

And therein lies an innate problem: The United States team has cultivated such a dominant history at this competition that it’s largely taken for granted these days. Couples’ squad will enter Sunday’s play with an 11½ to 6½ advantage as four matches from Saturday’s foursomes session have yet to be completed.

A victory for the U.S. will be greeted with less emotion than Dufner usually shows after holing a short par putt. Just another win over the “other guys” in various shades of cream and chartreuse. Another beatdown of a bunch of players whose last names look like an eye chart.

A loss, though, will be cause for national concern. Especially a loss that occurs after owning a five-point advantage on Saturday evening. And even more especially a loss that occurs after the team led by four points at this juncture during last year’s Ryder Cup.

And yes, we all remember what happened there.

That includes the U.S. team. But there’s a big difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. Couples is directing his players toward the former, obviously, but not simply to avoid that cause for national concern.

“Everyone's playing so well; it's really very little stress,” the captain explained. “The only thing I pay a lot of attention to is my guys. You know, they will [ask] me right now” ‘When is the bus leaving?’ I [don’t] care. ‘When is the bus going in the morning?’ I don't care.

“When we get out here, I care a lot. I care how they are feeling, how they are striking it, pay attention to them.”

Those aren’t the words of a captain who is competing for fun. Or for goodwill. Or for bragging rights.

But hey, I’m not going to be the one to contradict Mr. Nicklaus in his own house. I’ll just let the actions and emotions of the United States’ team speak for themselves.