For most of this year the easiest shot in golf was any one aimed at the inaugural Presidents Cup.
Last week's match play event, which pitted a 12-man team from the U.S. against one drawn from countries in the Southern Hemisphere and Japan, had offered an inviting target. The Presidents Cup was variously criticized for being an even-year rip-off of the Ryder Cup; for having a tricked-up format, complete with gimmicky sudden death; for contriving an International side comprising players from six distant countries; for being hastily started by the PGA Tour as a preemptive move against IMG, the superagency, which was proposing a similar event; and for being nothing more than a bunch of American pros in a meaningless outing against a bunch of foreign-born pros, many of whom live in the U.S.
Some of the most conspicuous blasts were fired by the game's best players. "Right now I'm trying to separate Tom Kite from other players, and I don't know that the Presidents Cup will do that," said none other than Tom Kite, who did not qualify for the team but seemed to deem it beneath him. Seve Ballesteros, who has gained more from the Ryder Cup than perhaps any other player, saw no room for what he considered a cheap imitation that he wouldn't be eligible for anyway. "I think it is very, very bad," he said.
The critics smiled when organizers could not persuade U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa to play on the International team for expense money, rather than take the appearance fees and prize money offered by last week's Dunhill British Masters in England. They chuckled when, on the eve of the competition, Greg Norman, the event's biggest draw and most ardent promoter, withdrew as the result of a severe intestinal virus. And they scoffed when the U.S. team jumped to a 7-0 lead on the first day.
But on Sunday, after Fred Couples nearly holed out a wondrous approach shot from a fairway bunker to seal a closely contested 20-12 victory for the U.S. team, the critics were suddenly silent, disarmed by an impressive display of American firepower and the indefatigable spirit of an outmanned but flinty International side. The triumvirate of Davis Love III, Corey Pavin and Phil Mickelson, particularly at the crucible that was the 18th hole, also provided heroics for the U.S. And the Internationals, led by a dog-tired Nick Price—who, remarkably, was the only player on either team not to win a match—and by captain David Graham, provided tougher competition than the final score would indicate. By the time every player had voiced his wish to be in the next Presidents Cup match, in 1996, it was clear that the new event had found its own identity.
"We wanted this to be the best first playing of a significant event in golf," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who admitted being worried in March that it would be a turkey. "I believe we reached our objective."
It was tempting to look to the long history of comebacks in the area for an explanation of how the Presidents Cup so suddenly became a hit. The matches were played at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, which spills out along the shore of Lake Manassas, in Gainesville, Va., just up the road from Bull Run, where the Confederate army was on the ropes before handing the Union army its most devastating defeat of the Civil War. It's only 35 miles from Washington, D.C., where Marion Barry is in the process of realizing a political resurrection for the ages, and only six miles from Manassas, where John Wayne Bobbitt survived the unkindest cut of all to go on to star in an X-rated movie.
The format was similar to the Ryder Cup, as the critics had pointed out, but that turned out to be part of the charm. On Friday and Saturday morning, five four-ball matches pitted two-man teams against each other, with the better ball on each side counting. The five afternoon matches on those two days were foursomes, two-man teams playing alternate shots. The final 12 matches on Sunday were singles, but unlike the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup extended singles matches into extra holes to determine an outright winner. Also, a provision was made to break an overall tie, with each captain sealing the name of one player in an envelope in advance; those players would go into sudden death if the score was 16-16.
"This event is needed now," said Norman, who despite having lost 13 pounds in the last week presented his gaunt and pale figure in Virginia on Sunday to lend his support to the Internationals. "That may not have been true a couple of years ago, but it is now. The people want it, and it's already standing on its own. This baby's been born, and it's just going to get bigger and bigger."
No one who played in this first one would disagree. Like the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup offers something more important than money, at least to those players who are already well-heeled, and that is the respect of their peers and the opportunity to test themselves when their pride and reputation are on the line. It also provides a shared warmth of team victory that transcends individual triumphs. While the pressure at the Jones course was nowhere near that reached at the Ryder Cup, the emotions expressed by the winners were just as exuberant.
"When I hit my ball on 18, I could see my teammates running along the fringe to see how close it was," said Couples, who has played on three Ryder Cups. "At the Buick Open nobody ran up to my ball to see how close it was. For me this is the most fun I've had in golf."
Even on the losing side, the thrill of the team competition was something special. Graham said, "David Frost came up to me and said, 'I've never, ever been this nervous on a golf course.' And that's why people want to play."
Hale Irwin made the point a different way while basking with his team in victory: "I told them, 'This feeling you have is why you want to play in these things. Don't forget this feeling. This is special.' "
Members of the American team felt they had something to prove. After foreign players made an unprecedented sweep of all four majors this year—with Price taking the British Open and the PGA, and Josè María Olazàbal winning the Masters—the U.S. was a decided underdog. But with the International team missing Norman and Els, along with Jumbo Ozaki, who skipped the Presidents Cup to play in Japan, the U.S. had to win or be prepared to take more hits for being surpassed by the rest of the world.
"We had to show people again," said Love, who led the U.S. squad, with four victories. "It bothered me that people were giving us no shot. Everyone says the foreign golfers are beating us, but if it were just flag on flag, our country against any other country, nobody could beat us."
More than at any other hole, the Americans proved their point at the 18th, a narrow 429-yard par-4 with a wavy, plateaued green. Of the 11 matches that went to the final hole, the U.S. lost only one, and that loss came after the team's victory was assured on Sunday. In fact, the Americans never lost the 18th hole, and on five occasions birdied it to win or halve a match. "They owned the last hole," said Price, who three times was trumped by a U.S. birdie on 18.
Although both teams exhibited toughness on the course, this was a far more collegial event than the Ryder Cup. The players and their families stayed at the same hotel in McLean, Va. On Tuesday both teams were entertained by President and Mrs. Clinton at a White House dinner. On Friday the squads mingled at a barbecue. And when Price saw his singles opponent, Couples, on the 1st tee on Sunday, he started to shake hands, only to grab Couples in a mock choke hold.
The sweet atmosphere even made Irwin, known as one of the grittiest and least amiable of competitors, turn all mushy. "I know I'm usually perceived the other way," he said, "but I just told the guys to have fun."
No one had more fun than Irwin's co-captain, Paul Azinger, who to a large extent took over the team once the competition started. "I could not have been a playing captain without Paul," said Irwin, whose record was a commendable two wins, one loss and one half. Had he not been off the Tour this year to undergo treatment for lymphoma, the gutsy Azinger, who has an admirable Ryder Cup record of his own, would almost certainly have made the team, which was selected on the basis of Tour performance. Azinger immersed himself in his co-captaincy, helping to make each day's pairings, taking care of logistical details and zipping around the course in a cart, lending support and advice. "My role wasn't a token, let's-win-one-for-the-Gipper thing at all," said Azinger. "Hale needed the help, but the whole thing, just being so involved, was a blast."
In fact, the closest thing to a downer for the U.S. team was the news on Wednesday that Norman had to drop out. He was replaced at the 11th hour by fellow Australian Bradley Hughes, the 117th ranked player in the world.
It was Norman's unabashed cheerleading for the format that persuaded the Tour to go forward with the project. And despite Price's recent rise to No. 1 in the world, it was the charismatic Australian whom television considered the event's biggest draw. Less obvious but just as important, Norman is the player the Americans most wanted to beat. When Irwin learned that Norman had pulled out, he didn't hide his disappointment. "All of us were champing at the bit to get a shot at Greg," he said. "We wanted to kick his butt this week."
But rather than losing interest, the Americans reacted by transferring those feelings to Norman's teammates. In a phenomenal display in the Friday-morning better ball matches, the U.S.'s five teams were a collective 17 up on the front nine. Only one match got to the 18th hole, and according to Azinger, for the 75 holes played, the U.S. had 48 birdies.
Price, who was struggling with his long game even as he was winning the Canadian Open two weeks ago, did his best to catch up. He holed a five-iron from 192 yards for an eagle on the long par-4 13th, but he and Hughes still lost to Couples and Love, one up. Meanwhile, Mickelson was teaming with Tom Lehman to defeat Frank Nobilo of New Zealand and Peter Senior of Australia, 3 and 2. On the par-5 14th, Mickelson holed a 95-yard wedge shot for an eagle—the ball landed on a slope 25 feet behind the pin and spun back so hard that if it hadn't crashed into the pin, it would have rolled by the hole at least another 25 more.
Almost before they knew what had hit them, the Internationals were down 5-0.
"They jumped us," Price said after Friday's matches. "I think because of the experience some of their players have had in the Ryder Cup, they were much more comfortable at the beginning, and they basically wiped us right out of the blocks. Those first nine holes may end up costing us the Presidents Cup."
In the afternoon foursomes the U.S. extended its lead to 7-0 before the International squad began to play better. It nearly won the last three points of the day but was thwarted in the final match when Love and Jim Gallagher Jr. combined for a birdie on the 18th to gain a half from Price and Steve Elkington.
On Saturday morning the desperate Internationals cut the lead to 9-6. It would have been closer, but Mickelson, this time playing with Pavin against Price and Elkington, carved a spectacular six-iron approach off an upslope, this time on the 18th, where the ball rolled back some 40 feet to within kick-in distance. That birdie earned a tie that was another dagger through the Internationals. Immediately after the match, Price, suffering from dehydration, became ill and had to sit out the afternoon matches.
That was the most crucial session, and it was Pavin's turn to shine. The Internationals won two of the first three matches and were leading the last two, with the team of Pavin and Loren Roberts 3 down to Fulton Allem and Craig Parry after 12 holes. It looked like the score would be 10-10 at the end of the day, until Pavin, who will defend his title at the World Match Play Championship near London next month, holed a 40-foot sand shot for a birdie on the 15th. Then he made a four-footer to take the 17th and square the match, and stiffed a six-iron at the 18th that induced a losing three-putt from Allem and Parry. When Mickelson and Lehman also pulled out their match against Hughes and Mark McNulty, the Americans led 12-8. "Those two matches were just enormous," said Irwin.
In Sunday's singles it appeared that the U.S. might clinch early. But the Internationals hung tough at 16-9, one half point away from defeat. Because of the no-tie rule, four of the remaining matches went to sudden death, and the Americans were no better than square in the other three. With all seven of those matches still undecided, there was a remote chance that the ultimate Presidents Cup scenario would be played out, with the mystery players from each side facing off in sudden death.
That's when Couples stepped up with one of the most dramatic shots of his career. In a seesaw match that saw Couples fall 3 down to Price after eight holes, the two golfers were even as they studied their approach shots on 18. After Price pulled a nine-iron left of the green about 30 feet from the pin, Couples addressed his ball in an upsloping bunker 147 yards from the hole. Making clean contact with a nine-iron he hit a soaring shot that landed 45 feet past and to the right of the pin. Then the ball spun along the downslope to within two feet of the hole, as the 15,000 fans surrounding the green produced a gathering roar. When Price could not chip in, the U.S. had won.
"I probably missed more greens with short irons in these three days than I have in the last three months," said Price, who has won two majors and two other tournaments in that time. "We missed the length Greg and Ernie have, and they might have been the difference. But this event was great for golf."
So, of course, is the Ryder Cup. But if the Presidents Cup established anything last week, it is that there is room enough in golf for both of them.