- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

MONTREAL — The International team already has authored the first shots of the Presidents Cup.

The needle came out yesterday at the seventh edition of the biennial event as the International squad upped the ante at Royal Montreal by taking a few verbal jabs at world No. 2 Phil Mickelson.

Mickelson and Presidents Cup rookie Woody Austin will face Vijay Singh and Mike Weir in the second match of today’s opening foursomes. That matchup was no accident, not according to International vice captain Ian Baker-Finch. Given the chance to choose which duo would face Mickelson and Austin, Baker-Finch and International captain Gary Player immediately reached for the seemingly odd couple of the Canadian lefty and the Fijian stalwart.

“We think Weirsy’s got Phil’s number,” Baker-Finch said. “Most importantly, Mike feels that way.”

Weir is 4-1 in past Presidents Cup matches against Mickelson, including a 4-and-3 rout of the game’s more famous lefty in the 2000 singles.

“I think he beat me in singles. Did he beat me?” Mickelson asked, feigning ignorance before being apprised of his record against Canada’s favorite son. “Well, there you go. They have to keep riding that out until me or we are able to change that.”

If anything, Singh might be even more anxious to get a crack at Mickelson than his partner. Singh and Mickelson had an intense confrontation in Augusta National’s locker room at the 2005 Masters after Singh accused him of leaving a trail of spike marks in his wake. Later that same year at the PGA Championship, Singh took another thinly veiled swipe at Mickelson during Lefty’s victorious run at Baltusrol when he said: “I’m not a fake like some guys out here.”

Yesterday, the 44-year-old Singh took yet another whack at his favorite pinata.

“I love playing with Mike,” he said of his opening round pairing. “He’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve played a lot of golf together. … And we’re playing with Phil and Woody. I get along very well with Woody, so I think we’re going to have a good time out there.”

Nobody in the room missed the fact Singh had singled out Mickelson by omission, prompting one member of the media to ask the loaded question: “How do you get along with Phil?”

At that, Singh wrinkled his nose, pursed his lips and responded, “Phil who?”

Ouch. Singh’s reprise of his caddie’s “Tiger Who?” antics at the 2000 Presidents Cup provoked a few gasps from his teammates on the dais and prompted Ernie Els to shake his head and knead his temples in smiling incredulity.

But in reality such zingers, exchanged between both teammates and teams, provide the sparks that fuel the passion of both the Presidents and Ryder Cups. More is learned about personalities after a week of watching such exchanges between players at team events than in a full season of asking them about birdies and bogeys at regular tour events.

“When you get this many guys together in any situation, there’s going to be quite a bit of stick going around,” Els said. “That’s true week to week in locker rooms on the tour, but it’s especially true in these team events because you spend so much time together. What’s said between the teams is nothing compared to what’s said among the teams. Nothing is sacred with our group, I can tell you.”

To that end, Player is rumored to have cowed Rory Sabbatini’s continued requests for a match against Tiger with the following gem: “Rory, you’ve already had a couple of goes at him this year. How did those work out?”

Unlike their International and European counterparts, however, the more image-conscious U.S. bunch historically hasn’t shrugged off interteam barbs with much panache.

“The main difference [between the teams] is that we don’t get our knickers in a twist if someone calls us [jerks],” Australian Peter Lonard said at the last Presidents Cup.

U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus seems to know his team generally takes itself a bit seriously. And perhaps part of his genius as a captain is his own gift as a notably talented needler.

“I’ve always thought you need to laugh at yourself a little,” said Nicklaus, who credits his father with teaching him the subtle art of needling. “I’ve always had fun kidding guys. … I remember Gary and Arnold [Palmer] and I used to get after it pretty good. Every time one of us would shoot 75 or 76, the others couldn’t wait to get to him and ask where he had all their birdies. … I’m probably a little too quick sometimes with it, but I’ve never had anybody really get too mad at me.”

At the first official U.S. team meeting in Boston during the Deutsch Bank Championship, Nicklaus went around the room congratulating each member of his team on their seasons before pausing when he reached struggling Charles Howell and deadpanning, “Charles, you need a lesson.”

The playful tone Nicklaus establishes with his quick tongue tends to permeate the entire U.S. team. Taking a swipe at Tiger on Tuesday, Jim Furyk said he had never had a past partner chosen on the basis of charisma. David Toms zinged Austin and his atrocious wardrobe earlier this week when he said the team’s biggest concern about Austin’s first cup appearance would be how he would play while wearing a shirt rather than a Jackson Pollock.

From Nicklaus’ casual approach to picking pairings (players virtually select their own partners) to his constant quips, his captaincies unquestionably have fostered a comfortable tenor in the team room and a looser U.S. squad. Perhaps that lighter touch is the ultimate reason the United States recently has performed far better in the Presidents Cup against superior competition than in the Ryder Cup against routinely inferior rosters.

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