Drama of match play makes Presidents Cup compelling, despite its flaws

The U.S. defeated the Internationals 19 1/2 - 14 1/2.
Robert Beck/SI

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Jerry Seinfeld once joked that modern athletes switch jerseys so often that rooting for a team is really just rooting for laundry. I couldn't help but be reminded of that joke as I watched the Presidents Cup at Harding Park this week.

Tiger Woods of the U.S. and Robert Allenby of the International team are members of Isleworth in Orlando, and teammates in the Tavistock Cup. Phil Mickelson of the U.S. and Geoff Ogilvy of the International team are both members of Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The guys who are supposed to be adversaries are actually friends. But that's O.K. The same is more or less true for the Ryder Cup.

The other obvious problem with the Presidents Cup is that there's nothing uniting the International team except the fact that they're not Americans, or Europeans.

What's more, Ryder Cup purists sniff, the Presidents Cup, which started in 1994, is light on history. And it's lopsided. With the U.S. team running its Cup record to 6-1-1 on Sunday, the Internationals are a bit like golf's Washington Generals.

But the thing is, it doesn't matter. None of it matters. Haters can find fault with the Presidents Cup, but its problems have been overcome before by its more famous forebear, and the allure of match play is so strong that you can't help but be pulled into it.

Unlike your average Tour event, a show that unspools over four days, each match is a tidy and fulfilling short. There's a winner, a loser and a turning point, no matter if it's Presidents or Ryder Cup, WGC-Accenture or Piccadilly World Match Play.

Sometimes, as with Tiger and Steve Stricker's thrilling, birdie-eagle comeback win over Tim Clark and Mike Weir on Saturday morning, there's a "flip," or a reversal at the end. There's heartache.

And subplots. Don't forget the subplots.

Woods was asked if he didn't take a measure of revenge in upending Clark and Weir, who beat him in singles at the 2009 WGC-Accenture Match Play and the '07 Presidents Cup, respectively. Woods denied it, but come on. What do you think? Likewise, his 6-and-5 drubbing of Y.E. Yang to avenge this year's PGA Championship loss, seal the Cup victory and improve to 5-0 for the week must have been quite satisfying.

Match play is such good theater it sucks in even Tour pros, many of whom would normally choose a test pattern over other professional golfers.

As the tight Phil Mickelson/Sean O'Hair vs. Tim Clark/Vijay Singh match slowly made its way to 18 in the gloaming around 6 p.m. on Saturday, most every other player on both teams followed on foot.

International assistant captain Frank Nobilo brought out cups of hot chocolate and passed them around to his players and their wives. Steve Stricker gave Mike Weir a bear hug as they followed the match down 18, hours after the Woods/Stricker duo had broken Weir's heart.

Ryder Cup aficionados would argue that's the problem, that the Presidents Cup is all hugs and hot chocolate. But if you break it down, the Ryder once shared, or still shares, the Presidents Cup's flaws.

The Ryder Cup once lacked history, too — in 1949. That was when the eighth Cup was completed, six decades before this eighth Presidents Cup came to a close.

The Ryder Cup was one-sided, too, a biennial U.S. coronation until continental Europe joined Great Britain and Ireland in 1979 and Seve Ballesteros brought it all together in the mid-80s.

And the Ryder has a laundry problem, too.

Henrik Stenson and Chris DiMarco wear the same uniforms when they play for Lake Nona at the Tavistock. Stenson and Woods are good friends. Woods married Jesper Parnevik's nanny. Paul Casey and Phil Mickelson are Arizona State alumni and Whisper Rock pals. And on it goes.

But so what? It doesn't matter at the Ryder Cup, and it doesn't matter at the Presidents Cup. At both events the match is the thing; it's what gives the laundry meaning, if we let ourselves buy into the pageantry and pomp.

Face it: You cared about Woods trying to avenge his loss to Yang at the PGA Championship. You raised an eyebrow at the juxtaposition of Kenny Perry, 49, playing against Ryo Ishikawa, 18. (The sweet-putting future of golf, Ishikawa, beat the future of the Champions Tour, 2 and 1.)

You wondered what would happen in the match between banjo-hitting bulldogs Tim Clark and Zach Johnson. (Clark made seven straight 3s to win, 4 and 3, and Clark and Johnson combined for 13 birdies in 15 holes.)

And you got a kick out of Stricker showing off for Tiger at the end of their three-day man-date by giving a putting clinic on Saturday (seven birdies).

Michael Jordan was omnipresent in his cart, like captain Ballesteros at the '97 Ryder Cup at Valderrama. Barry Bonds walked inside the ropes, John Madden sat inside the ropes, and Corey Pavin took it all in with a captain's equanimity. (He'll be in charge at Ryder Cup 2010 in Wales.)

Even the coin-flips were semi-interesting with ceremonial flippers like Willie Mays, and the U.S. somehow going 5-0. Better check that coin.

Yes, the Ryder Cup is more compelling, but it's because the U.S. can quite easily lose that Cup, not just that the Euros rally around a real flag. If and when the Internationals grow a backbone the way the Europeans did, the Presidents Cup gets better.

Until then the focus will remain less on the actual trophy and more on the wrinkles of each individual match. As the compelling show at Harding Park proved this week, that's enough for now.

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