- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Presidents Cup is still searching for an identity.

The Ryder Cup’s kinder, gentler cousin returns this week to Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Lake Manassas, Va., bringing with it Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, Vijay Singh … and virtually zero buzz.

In theory, the event should be a biennial blockbuster. Born at RTJ in 1994, the Presidents Cup initially represented the PGA Tour’s attempt to capitalize on the exploding popularity of the Ryder Cup while providing the world’s two top players (Australia’s Greg Norman and Zimbabwe’s Nick Price) with a team match-play forum.

And while the five editions of the event have supplied plenty of star power and a handful of memorable moments, the Presidents Cup has not captured the public’s imagination. Some would claim the event’s modest popularity, relative to the Ryder Cup, stems from its lack of history. But that’s an oversimplification. The Ryder Cup was around for nearly 60 years before anybody noticed.

History didn’t make the Ryder Cup. Scoreboard parity, talent disparity and a dash of enmity did. The Ryder Cup didn’t take off until the Euros snapped a 13-straight stranglehold on the event by the Stars and Stripes (1985) and followed that up with their first victory on U.S. soil (1987 at Muirfield Village).

The patriotic chaos that ensued at the War by the Shore (Kiawah in 1991), Oak Hill (1995) and the Battle of Brookline (1999) might have caused consternation among players, purists and the game’s overly sensitive decorum police. But the theater was pure platinum, elevating the event to must-watch status surpassed within the sport by only the Masters.

“There’s nothing like the Ryder Cup,” Jim Furyk, a veteran member of this week’s U.S. roster, said at last month’s PGA Championship. “The pressure and electricity in the atmosphere are unlike anything else in golf.”

And certainly unlike anything you’re likely to see at RTJ this week. It takes competitive fire to generate electricity, but the Presidents Cup principals are more interested in friendship than fire. Both Nicklaus and International captain Gary Player are pillars of class and sportsmanship, as witnessed by their mutual agreement to call the 2003 Cup a draw after Woods and Ernie Els halved a third sudden-death hole in virtual darkness.

But while both sides were holding hands in Fancourt, South Africa, and patting each other on the back for their gentlemanly gesture, many fans felt cheated out of resolution.

The slogan for this Cup is “Unfinished Business.” And yet the PGA Tour was so taken with the Nicklaus-Player tie that it has thrown out the event’s playoff format, which involved a sudden-death duel between the teams’ titans. So now that titillating potentiality is gone. And even the comparatively weak tie-goes-to-the-Cup-holder system (a la the Ryder Cup) was vetoed, meaning this business might never get finished.

Fact is, the last thing the Presidents Cup needed was to lose some of its edge. Like it or not, competitive intensity and not sportsmanship is the fuel that powers the Ryder Cup’s popularity. Why? Because Joe Barcalounger needs a darn good reason to click over from Week 3 of football season — and hand-holding in an “exhibition” doesn’t qualify. The American public doesn’t do exhibitions. Don’t insult them. If it’s not important enough to mean something, don’t play.

The bottom line is that this week’s Presidents Cup could use a little more “Tiger Who?” and a little less “After You,” because a little bad blood makes for a lot of good drama.

“I think the main reason there might be a little more of that at the Ryder Cup is we don’t know those guys quite as well,” said Fred Couples, referring to the odd bit of healthy chirping that takes place between the U.S. and European squads. “Most of the guys on the International side are full-time players on the PGA Tour, so we know those guys very well. That’s definitely one of the reasons this week is a little more low key.”

Perhaps the most compelling drama this week will come from watching the continuing evolution of the synergy, or lack thereof, between a nucleus of U.S. staples that remains virtually the same every year.

If anything, questions surrounding the lack of U.S. team chemistry in its recent skein of Ryder Cup failures against the underdog Euros has only heightened interest in the event. Every other year, the sports world tunes in to watch big, bad Uncle Sam sweat, stagger and swoon against a closely knit band of Europeans who conversely seem to be killing time at the course between pub visits. There’s no denying the allure of witnessing the almost comical contrast.

“Frankly, I think the American teams have a tendency to get uptight in the Ryder Cup,” said Nicklaus when asked his theory on why U.S. teams have a 3-1-1 record in Presidents Cups against superb International squads but are 1-4 in the last five Ryder Cups against European squads always inferior on paper.

Said Player: “In the Ryder Cup, the Europeans play completely differently to the Americans. They are not traveling with, you know, you see Tiger flying in via G5 [jet] and Phil Mickelson with another G4 or something.

“[The Euros] come in by Greyhound bus, and they all have the banjos out and they are singing together. They are used to each other. They play practice rounds with each other. Whereas one [U.S. player] said — and I got a great kick out of it — ‘I’ve seen more of Tiger Woods this week than I’ve seen of him all year.’ ”

That contrast between the teams has never been among the Presidents Cup’s primary story lines, probably because the squads are always relatively evenly matched, eliminating the favorite factor, the burden of expectation that nearly always crumples Old Glory in the Ryder Cup. In fact, Nicklaus’ U.S. squad would have been an underdog this week if South Africa’s Ernie Els hadn’t donated his left knee to science while vacationing in the Mediterranean two months ago.

Els was 4-1 at the 2003 matches in Fancourt. And when those matches went to the envelope and a sudden-death playoff, it was Els whom International captain Gary Player chose as his secret stallion.

Without Els present, the favorite’s mantle shifts to the U.S. side. At the top of the rosters, the Fab Five tally is two apiece: The U.S. trots out No. 1 Woods and No. 3 Mickelson, and the visitors counter with No. 2 Singh and No. 5 Retief Goosen.

At the bottom of the rosters, the U.S. would seem to have a decided edge in talent and experience. And unlike at the Ryder Cup, where the Euros routinely hide their roster flotsam on the bench, the Presidents Cup begins with two sets of six matches, forcing every player on both squads into a double dose of early action.

Player had a chance to soften that disparity in experience at the bottom of the lineups with one of his wild-card picks when Aussie veteran Steve Elkington made himself an obvious selection with a runner-up finish at Baltusrol in last month’s PGA Championship. Elkington, 42, has three Presidents Cup appearances on his resume and has a stronger record in the event (8-4-3) than any player on the International roster.

But, mystifyingly, Player tapped Trevor Immelman for his final selection, dipping below Elkington in the world rankings to add a fourth rookie to his roster with the 25-year-old South African. The U.S. squad has no team match-play rookies.

Throw in Uncle Sam’s perfect record (3-0) at RTJ and the fact that Nicklaus will be concluding his farewell tour with this final bow at the prow, and few would pick against the red, white and blue.

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