MELBOURNE, Australia — When the countdown began, the famous Royal Melbourne layout was, by its own lofty standards, a dustbowl.
Stricken by one of the most wicked droughts in recorded Australian history, one of Alister MacKenzie's masterpieces was a shadow of its former self and in a state of disrepair in late 2007 when it was announced as host of this Presidents Cup.
At the time, Ryo Ishikawa had just turned 16. Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel were distant blips on the "great potential" radar. Ernie Els was the highest-ranked non-American in the world, and a bloke on the U.S. side, Webb Simpson, was still an amateur. Neither Bill Haas nor Dustin Johnson were officially recognized on the World Golf Ranking. Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and Nick Watney were all rated outside the top 100.
Oh, and a guy named Tiger Woods was approximately one light year clear as No. 1 in the world. At the time, he also had a caddie by the name of Steve Williams accompanying him around the world.
It's safe to say things have changed a little.
Today, when the opening shots are fired in what's becoming an ever-more-competitive battle between the United States and the International team in the ninth Presidents Cup, the landscape is barely recognizable — on all fronts.
The Americans, who hold a 6.5-1.5 lead — the 2003 edition was halved — in the series, will roll out six Cup rookies. The Internationals, whose only previous win came at Royal Melbourne in 1998, have four newcomers, making the combined tally of 10 the highest since 1994's inaugural event in Virginia.
Neither team seems reluctant to call on their younger guns, with some of the newcomers thrown straight into the deep end when pairings were announced for the opening foursomes.
But, clearly, when captains Fred Couples and Greg Norman came together for the first decisive moment of the 2011 edition yesterday, the calling of the names Woods and (Adam) Scott in the same match overran almost all the other storylines.
It should have been enough that Woods had just been reunited with Steve Stricker — who had been under a cloud with a neck injury as recently as last week — in arguably the Presidents Cup's most successful pairing, having gone 4-0 at Harding Park in 2009.
It could also have sufficed that Scott, who last week in Sydney declared that he had a legitimate shot at being No. 1 in the world, would play against Woods, another former Butch Harmon protege.
That Tiger's comeback is heating up; that Scott's revival came as a result of Norman's mercy selection in San Francisco two years ago; that Scott was not paired with fellow Aussie Jason Day in favor of the ever-popular K.J. Choi. The list goes on.
But since Scott's new caddie Williams set the golf world alight with his racial insult of Woods, his former boss, in China this month, this has been the marquee match that has been spoken of in almost hushed expectation.
Yesterday, despite a strong feeling in the press room to the contrary, Norman and Couples told the world the match had not been pre-planned, that it was purely by chance, even though the captains agreed it would give publicity an extra boost.
The match brings even more excitement after days of intense build-up as the Americans return to the only Presidents Cup venue at which they haven't triumphed.
Which brings us back to the course itself.
The Royal Melbourne Composite Course, a combination of its East and West layouts that has long been ranked among the world's best, has returned to its former glory. The course being played this week takes a different routing — primarily to ensure matches are still alive at the traditional closing hole nearest the clubhouse — to any previously played here and incorporates a new hole from the traditional composite layout. Consequently this 18 will be known as the Presidents Cup Course.
More importantly, the greens and fairways are again immaculate after a $2 million overhaul implemented almost three years ago but specifically tailored to have the course in pristine condition by today.
The fairway grass is now slower, and the green surrounds are now fescue grass, which keeps the bentgrass greens free of other invasive grasses.
But the most striking feature this week will be the greens. They are a stunning dark color, almost blue from a distance in comparison with the wispy rough surrounding them. They are extremely hard. A ball landing from a full, lofted approach shot sounds like a knock on a door.
The Korean players visiting the course for the first time this week said the pace was already "almost unfair," with the possibility for greenskeepers to have them running up to 14 on the stimpmeter, depending on wind conditions.
But as all the Australian veterans who've played Royal Melbourne will tell you, it's not about the speed of the greens around here, it's all about where you place the ball with your approach shot. The combination of hard and fast makes that very tough for newcomers.
All who've taken in its beauty this week for the first time have become aware that while birdies will flow in calm conditions on what is no longer a lengthy course, the forecast of high winds on Friday and Saturday could make it a beast.
It's a combination that has all involved salivating over what promises to be an unforgettable week of golf.
And that's one thing that has never changed about the Presidents Cup.