Presidents Cup fever. Can you feel the heat?
Not even Mike Weir’s mother would try to sell American golf fans on that line. The Presidents Cup is the “other” international tournament, known for the quality of its field (three of this year’s four major winners are playing in Montreal this week), the sportsmanship of its participants (captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player agreed to a tie in 2003) and the headwear of its caddies (Vijay Singh’s caddie, Paul Tesori, wore a “Tiger Who?” hat in 2000).
Unlike the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup doesn’t make American fans want to fly across the world, paint their faces and storm foreign courses like a Dockers-clad army intent on emptying the invaded country’s beer reserves. Especially not when the Giants are playing the Eagles. But what about the rest of the world?
Jack Nicklaus, captain of the United States team for the fourth time, thinks the Presidents Cup already belongs in the same class as the Ryder Cup. Nicklaus, who has become tournament’s most eloquent advocate, said at a news conference that compared to the Ryder Cup, “the Presidents Cup covers a far greater scope of worldwide golf than just United States versus Europe. I mean, it’s a bigger match. It’s grown in tremendous popularity.”
Strong words to say about a teenage tournament (est. 1994). But Nicklaus is a great champion, a statesman of the game and a world traveler, while we’re just tuning into the Golf Channel during commercial breaks of MTV’s reality series The Hills. So we went around the world to find out how big of a deal the Presidents Cup really is.
Our first stop was Australia, where we talked to Richard Hinds, a sports columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald. First we asked him where golf ranks in the hearts of Australian sports fans.
“Golf ranks just below cricket — our equivalent of baseball — and the local football codes (Australian rules football and rugby league) in the pecking order,” Hinds said. “There was an enormous boom in participation here in the 1980s coinciding with Greg Norman’s career. If you look at the large number of Australians on the PGA Tour now — more than 20 — almost every one would say he was inspired to play or to be a professional by what Norman achieved. That they were able to emulate him is due largely to the accessibility of courses and some very good coaching structures.”
Those Norman-inspired players, like Adam Scott, Stuart Appleby, Geoff Ogilvy and Nick O’Hearn, will be playing for captain Gary Player’s International team this week, and the presence of so many countrymen will get Aussie fans’ attention.
“Initially, there was a sense that the Presidents Cup was just an exhibition and lacked competitive edge,” Hinds said. “But as Australians have watched more of the Ryder Cup — only televised here in the last decade or so — I think they’ve wanted a piece of the action. A lot of fans will watch it, but it still rates well below the majors in the consciousness of the average Aussie.”
And he’s skeptical that the Presidents Cup will ever be a bigger event than the Ryder Cup.
“I doubt the Presidents Cup will ever compete with the Ryder Cup because of its history and the economic muscle of the U.S. and Europe,” Hinds said. “There has been some noise made here about allowing the International team to compete alongside the U.S. and Europe in the Ryder Cup, but given the success of that old rivalry I doubt it will ever happen. Again, I think the Presidents Cup’s future will depend wholly on how many top-flight players the non-American and European nations produce. If there comes a time when the best four players in the world are from Australia, South Africa, India and China, then it will have some real muscle.”
Closer to home, Lorne Rubenstein, a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, said interest among fans in Montreal, the Presidents Cup host city, is intense, especially since Player picked the Canadian golf hero Mike Weir for the International team.
“When there’s a rooting interest, that’s what gets Canadian fans’ attention,” Rubenstein said. “It wouldn’t be nearly as personal without a Canadian golfer in the tournament. It’s not as big out west. The interest increases the closer you get to Montreal.”
Rubenstein expects Toronto sports bars to be showing the tournament this week, although he noted that even in Florida he sometimes has to ask a bartender to turn on a golf tournament. And even though hockey dominates the Canadian sports world, if you look in the garage of a regular guy here, you are just as likely to see a set of clubs as a hockey goal or a bacon grill.
“Canadians are crazy about golf,” Rubenstein said. “It sounds stupid to say in hockey country, but it’s true. In Toronto, there’s no end to the amount of golf courses they’re building. Intuitively, it must be the biggest participant sport.”
Asked about Nicklaus’s belief that the Presidents Cup could someday be a bigger deal than the Ryder Cup, Rubenstein said, “You’d never say no.” He noted that until the rest of Europe was added to the UK and Ireland side in 1979, only hardcore fans had any interest in the Ryder Cup.
“The last time the Ryder Cup was in the U.S., it was in Detroit, which isn’t too far from here, and there weren’t a lot of people in Toronto talking about the Ryder Cup,” Rubenstein said. “Nicklaus is right. Golf is a worldwide game. It would be tough to beat the Ryder Cup’s intensity and emotion, and you won’t ever have that national fervor, but who would have thought the Ryder Cup would have become so big?”
However, he does see one thing that could stop the growth of the Presidents Cup. Like so many things in the game, it involves the Swooshed One.
“The one problem I could see is if Tiger or Mickelson decided not to play,” Rubenstein said. “They’ll play as long as Nicklaus is captain because they’re not going to snub Nicklaus. But if there’s a new captain and Tiger decides not to play, then I think the Presidents Cup would have a real problem.”