- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Va. "The thing about 18-hole match play is that it always favors the underdogs," Nick Price said yesterday on the eve of the Presidents Cup. "It's very difficult to predict [who will win]. If your opponents birdie three or four of the first five, six holes, it's very difficult to make up that ground especially in alternate-shot. That's what makes this format so exciting."
Two years ago in this event, Shigeki Maruyama was just such an underdog. He was 29, little-known outside his native Japan, and playing on a team that included Greg Norman, Nick Price, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. By the end of the week, though, it was Maruyama who was the toast of several continents. He won all five of his matches at Royal Melbourne to lead the Internationals to a stunning 20 1/2-11 1/2 upset of the United States.
The second day, especially, was something to see. In the morning, Maruyama teamed with Craig Parry in the foursomes to beat Tiger Woods and Fred Couples. Then he came back in the afternoon, with countryman Joe Ozaki as his partner, to trim David Duval and Phil Mickelson in the four-ball. His inspired play "lifted everybody's spirits," Els said, "and we went on to have a great week."
I asked Maruyama about That Week after his practice round yesterday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. At first, I wasn't sure I was going to get an answer, but then an interpreter magically appeared and saved the day.
"Two years ago, I was on fire," Shigeki said. "Everything was clicking together very well. Right now I'm not playing as well, but I'm getting better. I'm just going to do my best."
(Sorry, folks, that's the best I can do. You know how these cross-cultural exchanges go.)
Actually, Maruyama was pretty hot earlier this summer. He tied for second (with Tiger) in the Buick Invitational, finished fourth at Doral and third in the Western Open and shot a 58 in U.S. Open qualifying at Woodmont. Not bad for a PGA Tour rookie. But in the last few months he has struggled, only once cracking the top 45, which is why he's sitting out the foursomes today.
"It's a hard decision, considering how he played two years ago," International captain Peter Thomson said. "But he'll play [Friday] and the next day. I don't hear any complaints [from Shigeki]."
On the contrary, Maruyama welcomes the opportunity to "get some rest [Thursday] and practice the whole day to get ready for Friday and the rest of the days." It's a little different for him this time. Ozaki didn't make the team, so there's no natural partner for him. Carlos Franco who does a pretty funny impression of the ever-smiling Maruyama, apparently is one possibility, but Thomson sounded like he wouldn't hesitate to pair anybody with Shigeki.
"The players who played with him in Melbourne all know him and love him," he said. "He's a great guy."
He's also terrific in match play. He made it to the fourth round of the World Match Play Championship in '99 and to the third round this year (before losing to Woods, 2 and 1). He also has finished first and second in the Japan Match Play Championship. In a competition like the Presidents Cup, he can really help a team as he showed in '98.
Who knows, maybe Price will wind up playing with him. Nick's game seems to complement just about everybody's. "I feel like a little bit of a chameleon," he said, "because I've played with about every type of player that we've had. Ernie and Carlos and so many guys over the years. And it's been great fun. And that's what, I think, we're trying to make it… . That's the spirit that we have in our camp."
It will be interesting to see which underdog surfaces this week. At the last Ryder Cup, you may recall, the Americans had one of their strongest teams ever, but they still needed a miracle comeback to turn back the Europeans. (And when they finally did win, it was an unlikely player Justin Leonard, in the throes of a prolonged slump who rolled in the Cup-clinching 45-foot putt.)
Perhaps our underdog will be South African Retief Goosen, a recent winner on the European Tour. Then again, it could be an American Kirk Triplett, say. Nobody's expecting great things from Kirk. He missed the cut in his last two tournaments and hasn't played well since July.
Or maybe Maruyama will rediscover his game on the practice tee and lead the International charge again. As Price said, it's very difficult to predict. That's what makes match play so exciting.
Let the golf begin.

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