How the U.S. took one for the team at the Presidents Cup

How the U.S. took one for the team at the Presidents Cup

Woods and Toms steamrolled Geoff Ogilvy and Nick O'Hern 5 and 3 in Saturday four-ball.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP /Getty Images

Let’s be realistic about it: Montreal is a great city, and it’s an honor to represent your country, but you know that Tiger Woods would have welcomed a bye week. He’d never say that, but his schedule does not lie. Since Aug. 2 he has played in the World Golf Championship in Akron (a win); the PGA Championship in Tulsa (W); his own FedEx event in Boston (T2); the FedEx event in Chicago (W); the Tour Championship in Atlanta (W); and the Presidents Cup (W). That’s six events in two months. From a guy who likes to play 20 times a year. Did he really need the 90-minute bus ride (on the first day) from the Queen Elizabeth hotel in downtown Montreal to the Royal Montreal Golf Club, way out in the suburbs? To play in an event that is essentially a PGA Tour marketing scheme with no payday for the players? Not likely.

But there he was, playing hard (as always), cheerleading from the first cut, low-fiving his teammates and their caddies, going on a golf-cart joyride with an opponent, Vijay Singh. All that, and more. After Woody Austin went for his involuntary dip on 14 last Friday, Woods leaned into the left ear of Mrs. Austin, whom he barely knows, and said, “I just want you to know I offered Woody my clothes.” You could have knocked Shannon Austin over with a headcover.

If you’ve been watching Tiger closely over the years in these team events, you’ve seen him at his most reserved. Last week he might as well have been wearing a lampshade. Upper management set the tone. He was playing for Jack Nicklaus, a man with no use for pomp, and Nicklaus’s deputy, Jeff Sluman, a pro’s pro but one with an impish side. Captain Jack had three imperatives for his dozen players: Have fun, enjoy the golf and have fun.

When the four-day event was over—and the Americans had defeated the International squad handily, 191/2 to 141/2—Nicklaus talked about his I-team counterpart, Gary Player. During the closing ceremony, Nicklaus called Player “the best competitor and friend I’ve had in golf,” and both pensioners got weepy. Could you imagine Woods, 30-plus years from now, ever talking about his.?.?.?. Hold it, hold it: Who is Tiger’s best competitor and friend in golf? Nicklaus and Player had something that Woods, in his era, does not: players who competed fiercely and enjoyed one another’s company immensely.

“Jack and I have said this to each other many times,” Player said on Sunday night. “Tiger’s making more money than we ever dreamed of, but not in a million years would I trade our era for his.”

Last week Tiger and Team U.S.A. got a taste of camaraderie. There was an energy on the club that you didn’t find on last year’s losing U.S. Ryder Cup team in Ireland. Of course, you didn’t find it on the ’98 U.S. Presidents Cup team either, the one that lost to the Internationals in Australia shortly before Christmas. Nicklaus was the boss man of that team, too. Big Jack, open and candid in public in ways that Woods is not, has said the problem with that team was that many of the American players, along with their captain, didn’t want to be there.

In Montreal that issue was defused, even though some of the players had recently gone through the four-week grindfest known as the FedEx Cup playoffs. (Yes, playing golf for money is work.) Jack kept the Presidents Cup mellow from the top, while the P-Cup rookies—Hunter Mahan and Lucas Glover and Zach Johnson and the snorkelin’ Austin—pumped up the volume from below. “I can’t say enough for what the rookies brought to this team,” said Phil Mickelson, one of the elders. “Especially Woody, at age 43. Their energy and excitement, it really got us going.” On the Thursday opener, when six two-man teams played alternate shot, the U.S. team won five matches and halved one.

Ernie Els lost that day, playing with Angel Cabrera, but went 3-2-0 for the week. His team’s loss actually annoyed the Big Easy, and when it was over, Player was saying he didn’t know if the International team would want him back as captain, as the I-team members were not thrilled with how their two-man teams were paired (but that’s always easy to say after you lose). Moreover, Els noted, the U.S. team has a built-in advantage over the International team, because the U.S. fields an alternate-shot team annually, in the Ryder Cup as well as in the Presidents Cup. It has more chances to figure out how to play one of golf’s most peculiar formats.

Last week the Americans won 101/2 points in alternate shot (a.k.a. foursomes), out of a possible 11. Ouch! Jack’s method of figuring out the pairings was to ask the players to list, anonymously, whom they did and did not want to play with. Tom Lehman did the same thing as Ryder Cup captain last year, with one significant difference. When Nicklaus posed the question, it seemed casual. At the Ryder Cup, nothing seems casual. “In Ryder Cup, I’ve always been told who I’m playing with,” said Scott Verplank, who went 4-0-0 last week.

Woods made things easy for Jack. He told his captain, “Play me with anybody.” Woods won one match with Charles Howell and one with David Toms and lost one and won one with Jim Furyk. He also lost his Sunday singles match to Mike Weir. Jack engineered that Sunday matchup pitting the pride of Canadian golf against the best player today. Woods won’t allow any best-of-show inflation beyond that.

“Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of all time,” Woods said more than once last week. There are people who would dispute that—Tiger has won more (61 tournaments) at age 31 than Jack (37) had, and some of his winning margins have been crazy big. (Big Jack never won a U.S. Open by 15.) But for Woods, it’s useful to keep Jack way out in front. Jack has 18 professional major titles to Tiger’s 13. The gap keeps him hungry.

But Tiger is catching up to Jack in other ways, too. Jack’s life path has become Tiger’s path as well. Marriage. Death. Fatherhood. Becoming a course architect and running a tournament and winning and improving on both sides of the 30 divide. “For two guys who don’t spend a lot of time together, there’s a closeness there,” Woods said years ago. Nowadays, they share a locker room at Augusta National. Tiger plays in the Memorial every year. And Woods has now played for Nicklaus four times in the Presidents Cup. In Montreal, Woods was often near his captain—at team meals, in a press conference, on the team bus, in the fairways—sometimes with his long forearm resting on Jack’s shoulder. Tiger finally found a team competition he could thoroughly enjoy, courtesy of Jack. Now, said Woods, who in the last 18 months has experienced the death of his father, Earl, and the birth of his daughter, Sam Alexis, “I have a better perspective on what he went through in his career. I can understand why he became motivated, why he played better after his father passed and also why your life becomes more balanced when you have children.”

Jack left the door open for returning for the 2009 Presidents Cup, which will be played at Harding Park in San Francisco. He left the door open for serving again as a Ryder Cup captain, too. Last week was the first time a U.S. team, in either the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup, had won a road game since the Americans took a Ryder Cup at the Belfry in 1993. Toms predicted that Paul Azinger, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain for next year, would be checking in with Nicklaus and Sluman, looking for tips.

But you almost can’t compare the two events. The Ryder Cup began as Great Britain and Ireland, the countries that gave birth to the game, taking on the U.S., the country that advanced it. There was a natural rivalry there. When the U.S. plays the rest of the world, what’s there to get worked up about?

That’s the worst thing about the Presidents Cup, and the best thing, too. On the NBC telecast, the announcers spoke of the intensity of the Canadian fans. They weren’t intense. They were polite and knowledgeable, and the $7 glasses of vin rouge they drank only seemed to make them more mellow. What they did was cheer for Weir, who went 3-1-1. And even when he was playing Tiger, you never had to fight anybody to get a glimpse of the action.

The course was easy to walk and easy to play. (It was Birdie City out there.) The apple trees were showing fruit, and the air was autumnal and ever changing. On one still afternoon, a sudden wind came up and hundreds of yellow maple leaves came floating off a single tree. Amy Mickelson, Phil’s wife, walked through the falling leaves and said, “That was random.” She uses random for unexpected. It was nice.

The whole thing was random. When it was over, Tiger was loose and Sluman was wearing Woody’s new snorkeling mask and Jack was talking about doing it one more time and Ernie was annoyed. You couldn’t have predicted any of that, right? It’s a relief, really. Random is the death of the prediction game.

There was no raucous victory party on Sunday night. Why should there have been? People were tired. There was only sleep.