What A Whipping! A high-flying International Presidents Cup team sent the U.S. to a new low

December 21, 1998

The Australians have funny names for things. They call their
tasty shellfish bugs. Body shops are panel beaters, and don't
tell anybody Down Under that you root for your favorite team.
You'll be brought up on sodomy charges.

But one Aussie term needs no translation to American English: ass
whipping. That's what folks in the antipodes were calling it last
weekend when a team of pros from the Southern Hemisphere and
Japan beat a U.S. 12 about as soundly as you can without leaving
visible scars. "It was a romp from the start," said Australia's
Steve Elkington, savoring the International team's first victory
in three tries in the biennial Presidents Cup. "We poured it on
and poured it on."

Did they ever. The final score, after three days play at the
historic Royal Melbourne Golf Club, was Internationals 20 1/2,
U.S. 11 1/2. In 70 years of international team play, the
previous worst margin of defeat for an American team was a 16
1/2-11 1/2 loss to Europe in the 1985 Ryder Cup. Incredibly,
this U.S. squad--described by International captain Peter
Thomson as "the mightiest team ever assembled"--won only eight
of the 32 matches outright. Even more incredibly, one blocky,
charming, irresistibly effusive Japanese golfer, Shigeki
Maruyama, won more points (five out of a possible five) than
America's David Duval, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods combined.

Lee Janzen, the current U.S. Open champ, was among the first to
admit smelling smoke in the cockpit. Standing with U.S. captain
Jack Nicklaus at the 18th green on Saturday afternoon, Janzen
looked at the mounting tally--13 1/2 to 5 1/2 at the time--and
darkly joked, "We'd kick their ass in baseball." Maybe. But that
wouldn't be cricket.

It wasn't quite sporting, of course, that the first two
Presidents Cups were played in Virginia. This time the
Internationals were the hosts, and they chose a tricky venue.
Royal Melbourne's Composite Course is a grab bag of winsome
holes from two 18s laid out in the early '30s by the English
architect Alister Mackenzie. The track is notable for its wild,
natural look and its steep, cliff-edged bunkers, but its terror
is owed to the variable winds and the way the banks of the
greens are shaved to let balls roll into trouble. In the U.S.,
only Augusta National--another Mackenzie course--plays so hard
and fast.

The weather last week was a composite as well, a medley of three
seasons--spring, autumn and purgatory. Last Friday's matches
were played in the worst December heat Melbourne has seen this
century, a toasty 108[degree] with hair-dryer winds. Saturday
afternoon brought cooler southwesterly breezes and a whiff of
Port Phillip Bay. Then on Sunday came cloudbursts and chill,
giving the players and their wives a chance to show off their
whole wardrobes.

The Internationals proved they were a team for all seasons and
all formats. They won eight of a possible 10 points in the
foursome (alternate-shot) matches, 6 1/2 of 10 in the four-ball
(better-ball) matches and the first two individual matches on
Sunday--which is all it took to claim the Cup. Many of the
matches were settled on the 18th green, in front of a surprised
and gratified grandstand crowd. Near noon on Friday, New
Zealand's Frank Nobilo sank a 45-foot putt from the back of the
green to beat a highly regarded team of Duval and O'Meara. On
Saturday morning Melbourne native Craig Parry floored the
Americans by chipping in from 50 feet to steal a one-up victory
from Woods and Fred Couples. That afternoon South Africa's Ernie
Els drew the last great roar of the day by dropping a 12-footer
on 18 for a one-up four-ball victory over Woods and John Huston.
"We haven't made enough putts, and they've made way too many,"
said a frustrated Justin Leonard.

If one match summed up the American predicament, it was that
Saturday afternoon better-ball tug-of-war, Woods and Huston
versus Els and Fiji's Vijay Singh. The Internationals went four
up as Singh, enjoying his best season, birdied three of the first
four holes. But Woods, playing the kind of damn-the-torpedoes
golf he disdained in '98, led a comeback that squared the match
after 12 holes. Then Els got hot, birdieing 14 and 15 and
sticking an approach close on 16--only to lose the hole when Woods
hit one even closer and made the putt. When Tiger holed a
25-footer for birdie on the 17th, the match was square again and
the stage was set for Els.

The point being that the U.S., playing its best--Woods and
Huston were nine under par for the round, their opponents seven
under--simply inspired the Internationals to play even better.
"I saw Els putt three times this afternoon, 20-footers," a
dazed-looking Nicklaus said as he drifted among officials and
cameramen at 18. "He made all of them."

The words on everyone's lips were "How?" and "Why?" How could a
U.S. team led by five of the world's top 10 players lose to a
collection of nomads that included a Paraguayan (Carlos Franco),
two Kiwis (Nobilo and Greg Turner), ranked 60th and 69th in the
world, respectively, and one of Jumbo Ozaki's kid brothers (Joe
Ozaki)? Why did Duval putt as if his sunglasses were foggy? Why
did Huston not score even half a point?

The simple answer is that unusual wind conditions and a
leadership vacuum allowed tired, unmotivated players suffering
from jet lag to give a halfhearted effort too close to Christmas
on an unfamiliar course in front of a partisan crowd. That's the
simple answer. Or at least that's the consensus answer. Phil
Mickelson, who had only two halves in four matches, said, "If we
were to make up reasons, it would take away from their wonderful
play this week."

Some will blame the captain. Nicklaus was the first U.S. skipper
to lose the Ryder Cup on American soil (at his own Muirfield
Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, in 1987), and now he is the
first to lose the Presidents Cup on anybody's soil. At times
last week he seemed detached and distracted. He called his
players "my children" and said his role in the matches was
essentially to provide an encouraging word and simply to be
there, like the dutiful dad who leaves work to watch his boys
play peewee football. Strategically Nicklaus was a conscientious
objector. He paired players who had not previously teamed
together because he thought it would be "neat" for them to make
new friends. He let some players pick their own partners. "Just
because you're selected as the captain," he said, "everybody
thinks you're a strategic genius."

The real shocker, when you consider that only eight months ago
he contended at the Masters, is that Nicklaus looked old and
tired. An arthritic hip has sapped him of his physical vitality,
and emotionally he seems drained by recent business setbacks,
including a management scandal at his public company, Golden
Bear International. "He looked smaller at the end of the day,"
said an Adelaide woman, sympathy in her voice.

To be fair, that day was Friday. At the end of that scorcher,
all the Americans--save perhaps Couples and Woods, who beat Els
and Singh, 5 and 4, in the morning foursomes--looked smaller and
more vulnerable. Furthermore, Jack's players voiced their
unequivocal support. Said Leonard, "Mr. Nicklaus has done an
incredible job."

If not bad captaining, what? The calendar? This Presidents Cup
was played during the American holiday season, which is
traditionally a time for rest, family gatherings and
gazillion-dollar, made-for-TV exhibitions. It's not a time to
take on the Southern Hemisphere, where the golf season is at its
peak. There is also a suspicion that the American players don't
really want the event to soar. They already have a love-dread
relationship with that biennial gut check, the Ryder Cup. A
gloves-off Presidents Cup would make their ordeal annual, like
taxes and flu shots.

The players reject that theory as well. "It's not a lack of heart
or desire," said O'Meara. Jim Furyk, who scored only a point,
said, "I've been asked whether we were too loose or too tight."
He shrugged. "We just got beat."

Nicklaus, who doesn't expect to be captain when the matches
return to Virginia in 2000, allowed that his team's unfamiliarity
with Royal Melbourne may have hurt, just as the U.S. team's
ignorance of Valderrama in Spain probably cost them last year's
Ryder Cup. "Our guys had never seen the course under the north
wind conditions," he said. But just as quickly he dismissed the
wind as a factor. "It was the putts and chips they holed. They
produced shots when they needed to produce them."

Not surprisingly, the other side thought the outcome was more a
matter of Australian audacity, New Zealand zeal, Paraguayan
pride, Fijian fortitude, Zimbabwian zest, South African sagacity
and Japanese...sushi. "The thing with Kiwis," said Nobilo,
after he and Turner had won on Friday, "we will nip at somebody's
heels all day for 18 holes, and eventually we will take the leg
off."

A wild image, but certainly the U.S. players didn't have a leg
to stand on when they teed off on Sunday afternoon in the
singles needing 10 1/2 out of a possible 12 points to retain the
Cup. Thomson led off with the feisty Parry and then chose
veteran Nick Price to follow. Parry dusted a struggling Leonard
5 and 3, and Price snuffed out Duval in 17, making the remaining
10 matches a December anomaly--a televised exhibition with
nothing on the line but individual pride. (For the record, the
current world No. 1--Woods--defeated the Australian icon and
former world No. 1, Greg Norman, one up.)

It was left for Scott Hoch, one of only six Americans to score
at least two points, to put the International team's win in
perspective. "We knew it was going to be a matter of time," he
said on Saturday evening, surveying the wreckage that was the
U.S. squad. "But with the team we had, we didn't think it would
be this year."

Stonkered. Up the spout. Gone to Gundy. It didn't matter what
the celebrating Aussies called it. The U.S. got an old-fashioned
butt whipping.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CALLOW DOWN UNDERSTUDIES Maruyama (right) and Parry stole the show. [Shigeki Maruyama and Craig Parry hugging]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CALLOW Bearfaced U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus (below) was as surprised as anyone when his top players bombed in the Presidents Cup. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Date with destiny? One U.S. excuse: Internationals like Price were in midseason form while the Americans were on holiday. [Nick Price golfing]

U.S. WORLD RANK RECORD

1. David Duval 3 0-4-1
2. Tiger Woods 1 2-3-0
3. Jim Furyk 12 1-3-0
4. Justin Leonard 15 0-3-1
5. Phil Mickelson 10 0-2-2
6. Davis Love III 4 0-3-1
7. Mark O'Meara 2 2-2-0
8. Scott Hoch 20 2-2-0
9. Mark Calcavecchi 21 1-1-2
10. Fred Couples 11 2-2-1
Pick: John Huston 29 0-4-0
Pick: Lee Janzen 23 1-1-2

INTERNATIONAL WORLD RANK RECORD

1. Ernie Els 5 3-1-1
2. Nick Price 6 2-1-2
3. Vijay Singh 9 3-1-1
4. Greg Norman 18 3-1-1
5. Steve Elkington 16 3-0-2
6. Stuart Appleby 33 2-1-1
7. Carlos Franco 39 0-2-1
8. Shigeki Maruyama 43 5-0-0
9. Craig Parry 51 3-1-0
10. Joe Ozaki 56 2-1-0
Pick: Frank Nobilo 60 2-2-0
Pick: Greg Turner 69 2-1-1

Players listed in order of qualification

"Just because you're selected as the captain," Nicklaus said,
"everybody thinks you're a strategic genius."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)