Els is back to lead the International team

MONTREAL (AP) — Six players from each Presidents Cup team took turns sitting behind a long table during two days of press conferences at Royal Montreal, and it was no coincidence that the center seat belonged to the top players.

And it was no surprise to see Ernie Els front and center.

No one has played in more Presidents Cup matches for the International team than Vijay Singh, but it's the Big Easy who is considered the spiritual leader of this team. And they were glad to have him back.

"It was a big disappointment for me last time not to have Ernie,'' captain Gary Player said. "It was a very, very important thing to have Ernie, and we lost by one hole. And that's when you really realized how important it would have been to have Ernie. So we are pleased to have him back this year, and let's hope he plays well.''

Els missed the 2005 matches while recovering from surgery after tearing ligaments in his left knee while tubing in the Mediterranean on a family holiday. The United States won in the final match and Player always wondered how much it would have helped to have the three-time major champion on his side.

"Obviously, this is a big deal,'' Els said. "You want to get in a team like this. It puts you with world-class players like we have.''

His last Presidents Cup was in South Africa in 2003, and Els took two rookies under his wing with alarming success. He and Tim Clark won both their matches, and Els and Adam Scott went 2-0. The only thing that kept it from being a perfect week was losing to Tiger Woods in the Sunday singles, although their sudden-death playoff for the cup ended in a tie at dark.

Els has not won anywhere in the world in 2007, although he comes into these matches with momentum on his side. He was in contention on the back nine of the British Open and PGA Championship, had a chance at The Barclays, then settled into mediocrity at East Lake.

Even so, he appears fully recovered from his knee injury, enough that U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus made fun of him.

"I'm taking Ernie tubing,'' Nicklaus said.

Once the laughter subsided, Player replied, "Tiger is joining him.''

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CAPTAIN JACK: Jack Nicklaus never expected to be U.S. captain at the Presidents Cup again, but when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem asked him last year, Nicklaus couldn't refuse.

He is 1-1-1 as captain, losing badly in Australia in 1998 before getting a far stronger effort from the Americans the past two times. Nicklaus enjoys being captain because it allows him to keep in touch with the game and the young players.

As popular as he is, would Nicklaus like to be Ryder Cup captain again?

Yes - but only if asked.

"I'd be delighted to be captain any time,'' Nicklaus said. "I had my time with the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup, but if they asked again would I do it? Sure. I would never turn Tim down. But I think it's someone else's turn.''

Nicklaus was Ryder Cup captain twice, his team narrowly winning in 1983 and becoming the first American team to lose the Ryder Cup on home soil in 1987 - at Muirfield Village, no less.

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HARDWARE: One can only imagine the trophy case at the home of Jack Nicklaus, winner of 18 major championships and 55 other PGA Tour events during his career, not to mention winning Ryder Cup and World Cup teams.

Barbara Nicklaus, his wife, once decided to get her share of the glory.

Nicklaus told of the time his wife won a tennis tournament at the club. Wanting to display her trophy, she removed one of his six Masters trophies and replaced it with hers.

"It was the women's tennis C-League runner-up,'' he said. "She waited to see how long it would take for me to notice. And I never did.''

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BIG FOUR: International captain Gary Player was raving about the American strength atop the world ranking by noting they had the top three players with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk.

He forgot about Steve Stricker, who moved up to No. 4 this week by two-hundredths of a point over Ernie Els.

It was thought to be the first time Americans occupied the top four spots in the world ranking, but turns out that isn't the case. Woods, David Duval, Davis Love III and Mark O'Meara were Nos. 1-4 during a 24-week span from October 1998 through April 1999.

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AMERICAN FAVORITE: Mike Weir received the loudest ovation at opening ceremonies Wednesday, no surprise because he is the only Canadian in the Presidents Cup. Tiger Woods also received mighty support, with fans eventually rising in the bleachers.

Third in popularity? It just might be Jim Furyk.

Furyk won the Canadian Open in 2006, then he won over the home crowd by returning to defend his title, even though it was the week after the British Open and gave him no time off for the World Golf Championship and PGA Championship that followed.

And he won again, becoming the first back-to-back winner since Jim Ferrier in 1950-51.

"I've been treated real well,'' Furyk said. "Different area, different province, but I still feel a lot of people are very positive. I appreciate it very much and I'll try to continue and come back and play in Canada quite a bit and show my thanks.

"Obviously, they'll be rooting for the other team this week, and I know that,'' he said. "But I still feel a lot of support.''

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