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A Cup Halved Full How could a major international competition be allowed to end in a tie? Because it was the right thing to do

Dec. 01, 2003
Dec. 01, 2003

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Dec. 1, 2003

A Cup Halved Full How could a major international competition be allowed to end in a tie? Because it was the right thing to do

You had to be there to know how right Jack Nicklaus and Gary
Player were to bifurcate the 2003 Presidents Cup. You had to be
down there in the gloaming on Sunday night--that's right,
night--on the 2nd green of the Links at Fancourt, a Scottish
mirage at the pointy end of Africa. You had to look in the tired
eyes of Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, who had just carried the
U.S. and International teams on their shoulders for three
playoff holes, unprecedented in the history of the Presidents
or any other cup. You had to hear the passion in Nicklaus's
squeaky voice as, surrounded by officials, marshals, cameramen
and players from both teams, he told PGA Tour commissioner Tim
Finchem on a cellphone that he had just seen a golf event too
good to continue. "Everybody's comfortable that this is the
most unbelievable event the game has ever seen," the U.S.
captain told the commissioner. "We should share the Cup."

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2003 issue

If you weren't there, it's possible that you would see it
differently. You may think a 17-17 tie between two 12-man
teams--after 34 partnered and individual matches spread over four
days--is worse than a paperback mystery with the last chapter
torn out. You may argue that the sudden-death tiebreaker between
Woods and Els, the two best players in golf, should have left one
of them, if not dead, at least inconsolable. You may also wonder
how two charming old coots, their glory days well behind them,
can rewrite the rules of a competition while it is still being
played.

Stop thinking, stop arguing and stop wondering. What Nicklaus and
Player did at Fancourt was no different from what Michelangelo
did when he stopped nibbling at his statue of David: They
preserved a perfect outcome. And by doing so, they allowed the
nine-year-old Presidents Cup, the unglamorous stepchild of the
more ballyhooed Ryder Cup, to suddenly and unexpectedly outshine
the original.

How fine was Fancourt? Start a list. The Internationals trailed
the Americans by three points after last Friday's better-ball and
alternate-shot matches, but they stormed back on Day 3 with a
sweep of all six better-ball matches. The U.S. team answered on
Sunday with a three-point comeback reminiscent of the American
charge to victory in Brookline in the 1999 Ryder Cup. Was there
drama? Nick Price, the nicest guy in golf, broke his putter over
his knee when he missed a decisive putt on the 18th hole in
Sunday's singles. Phil Mickelson, looking like a man who expected
his ball to hop back out of the cup whenever it went in, lost all
five of his matches. Els, playing just a few miles from his house
in Herold's Bay, scored four of a possible five points, ended two
matches with walk-off eagles and etched himself in the memories
of his countrymen by playing Woods to a draw in the twilight.

Then you had the unfortunate Davis Love III. One up on Robert
Allenby as they came to the par-5 18th in Sunday's final match,
the five-time Presidents Cupper chunked a chip from a difficult
lie and watched, heartsick, as the Australian got up and down
from behind the green for birdie to secure the half point that
sent the Cup into overtime.

That's where the debate begins. A decade ago, before the first
Presidents Cup was played, at Lake Manassas, Va., Hale Irwin and
David Graham signed a captains' agreement laying out the rules of
competition. The agreement has been amended several times, but
one key provision remains: In the event of a tie, the Cup is not
retained by the defending champion, as it is in the Ryder Cup.
Instead, each captain nominates a single player to represent his
side in a sudden-death playoff, putting the name in a sealed
envelope before the start of the final day's play. "The reason
for the rule was to differentiate the Presidents Cup from the
Ryder Cup," says Love, who was on the PGA Tour policy board when
the decision was made. What no one anticipated was the
possibility that two subsequent captains--two strong-willed but
sentimental men with 27 major championships between them--might
amend the agreement with a handshake during the heat of play.

"Personally, I don't think there should be a sudden-death
playoff," Player said on Sunday. "The Presidents Cup is a team
competition, and if the teams tie, that's an honorable and
correct outcome." Nicklaus, acknowledging that he couldn't bear
the thought of either Woods or Els coming out of the playoff a
loser, dismissed the captains' agreement as something "made up by
somebody in a back room" at Tour headquarters.

Nevertheless, both captains had put their playoff picks in
envelopes on Sunday morning. Come evening, as Love prepared to
hit his chip shot at 18, Els left his teammates and walked to the
practice range. Woods, seated with the other U.S. players on a
grassy mound, waited until Love missed his long par putt. Tiger,
too, then disappeared to warm up. Minutes later, the captains
opened their envelopes in the middle of a throng on the 18th
green. "It says Tiger!" cried Nicklaus, drawing a roar of
approval from the grandstands. "It's Ernie Els!" crowed Player,
nearly bringing down the house.

Masters champion Mike Weir, who had scored three points for the
Internationals before losing to Jim Furyk in singles, considered
the implications and quivered. "Wow," he said. "It's for all the
marbles. It's awesome." And so it was--all the more so because
Woods had earlier made up for his lackluster 2-2 record with
partner Charles Howell by making five birdies and beating Els 4
and 3 in Sunday's penultimate match.

The setting sun poked through a dull sky as the playoff began.
Els and Woods halved the 18th with pars. They then led a
supporting cast of thousands to the 1st hole, a short par-4 with
a tabletop green slick enough to skate on. Els, having to chip up
a steep bank from behind the green, left himself a difficult
10-footer for par. He made the putt, touching off another
celebration. Tiger was left with a testing three-footer to halve,
and as he had all day, he calmly rolled it in.

O.K., not so calmly. Woods admitted later that the playoff was
"nerve-racking," as unsettling as anything he had experienced
with a golf club in his hands. Els, meanwhile, confessed to
feeling "unbelievable pressure--probably the first time I've ever
felt my legs shaking a little bit." The captains, neither of them
strangers to pressure, were feeling it too. As they walked up the
1st fairway, they were in earnest negotiations over a way to end
the playoff with everyone coming out a winner. "You're playing
goodwill matches," Nicklaus explained later. "You're not playing
for blood."

Nicklaus will no doubt draw flak for that remark, but he has been
consistent over the years in arguing that international team
matches should be played in a spirit of amity and mutual respect.
He famously conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin at the 1969 Ryder
Cup, knowing that the U.S. would retain the trophy with a tie,
because he didn't want Jacklin to be called a choker if he
missed. This time, at Fancourt, Nicklaus feared that the
Presidents Cup would be tarnished if either Woods or Els missed a
deciding putt in the gathering darkness.

Yet, they played on. At the 2nd hole, a 231-yard par-3 with a
valley green blanketed in shadow, PGA Tour tournament official
Jon Brendle watched the two stars hit their tee shots and shook
his head. "If it gets too dark," he said, joking, "we're going to
Ernie's house for shots." Down at the massive green Woods stroked
a putt of at least 70 feet up a slope and around a bunker to an
undesirable spot about 12 feet to the left of and above the hole.
Els then putted to about eight feet from the far right edge of
the green, leaving himself a straighter putt.

Woods, no doubt wishing that the lingering light would go pfffft
and end his misery, then sank the greatest clutch putt in
Presidents Cup history, described by Nicklaus as "up and over,
down, sliding away." Photo flashes punctuated the moment as Woods
charged the hole, giving it his category 5 fist pump. "That was
one of the biggest putts I've ever made," he said. "It was such a
huge day, and I didn't want to let down my guys." Els, faced with
yet another must-make, took his time and stroked his eight-footer
squarely into the hole. The crowd, arrayed on the rugged hills
around the green, erupted one last time, buoyed by the certain
knowledge that they were witnessing a special episode in the
history of golf and in sports in South Africa.

Only then, like a referee squeezing between two bruised and
bloodied fighters, did Nicklaus and Player call it off. It took
some artful politicking. First they had to get Finchem's O.K. by
cellphone. Then they had to present the options to their
bewildered players, finessing the sticky bits. (Finchem first
tried to claim that calling off the playoff meant that the U.S.
team would retain the Cup--to which Els rightly said, "No way!"
After both sides adjourned to separate corners to huddle,
Nicklaus then suggested that the Cup be "shared"--a rhetorical
gambit that was quickly embraced by both camps.) "I think it's
the right thing to do," Woods said, wandering around the green
with a smile. "It's great for golf." Els agreed, saying, "It's
fair."

You don't agree? You think they should have tried to play another
hole? Fine, but then the Cup might have been decided by a lost
ball or a putt rolled across an unreadable green. Could they have
returned in the morning to carry on with sudden-death or had all
24 players come back for another session? Yes, but that would
have been horribly anticlimactic. And as Woods noted wryly,
"We're out of uniforms."

No, Nicklaus and Player got it right. They "fixed" the Presidents
Cup, all right, but not in the crooked sense. They put
sportsmanship and collegiality ahead of a literal reading of the
rules and as a result gave the Presidents Cup the gravitas it has
lacked. "When Ernie made that last putt, I thought it was
absolutely perfect," Nicklaus said.

That seemed to be the view of virtually all the spectators making
the slow trek uphill to the Fancourt clubhouse on Sunday night.
Some laughed, some yelped, some sang football anthems. Most
simply reveled in the outcome. Above them, distant fires in the
Outeniqua Mountains glowed like celebratory bonfires. A man, a
dark outline on a mound overlooking the 18th fairway, suddenly
yelled, "Everybody wins!"

He, too, was right.

COLOR PHOTO: ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES WHAT A WEEK At Fancourt (clockwise from above), Mickelson was a lost cause, Furyk and Vijay Singh parted friends, Tiger threw his Sunday punch, Allenby had on his game face, two escaped Clauses showed up, Jerry Kelly cringed, and Els and Woods stole the show at the end.COLOR PHOTO: THEMBA HADEBE/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: HADEBE [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES STAR TRACK The treacherous Links at Fancourt, designed by Player and only three years old, were a hit with both sides.

Presidents Cup Scorecard

UNITED STATES W L T Final Analysis

KENNY PERRY 4 1 0 In singles, last-hole winner over
Price in Battle of Golf's Nicest Guys

Jay Haas 2 1 1 Look out Champions tour, the new
sheriff turns 50 next week

Davis Love III 2 1 1 Week of brilliant short-game play
overshadowed by Sunday duff at 18

Jim Furyk 3 2 0 Crucial takedown of Weir ran Prez/Ryder
singles record to 5-0-1

Charles Howell 3 2 0 Carried Tiger in foursomes. Look for
same pairing at '04 Ryder Cup

Tiger Woods 3 2 0 Asked for undefeated Els in singles,
and showed him who's boss

Jerry Kelly 2 2 0 Fan-friendly former hockey player cool
customer during Sunday win

Justin Leonard 2 3 0 Scores in pairs, but winless in five
Prez/Ryder singles matches

Chris DiMarco 2 3 0 Literally clawed his way to must-win
on Sunday over Appleby

Fred Funk 1 2 1 Smart pick, Jack. Driving accuracy a
big boost on tight layout

David Toms 1 4 0 Unable to summon A game on awkward
course. At least LSU won

Phil Mickelson 0 5 0 Too many missed fairways led to dismal
end to dismal season

Jack Nicklaus 0 0 1 We loved the lecture to the commish on
"spirit of the Presidents Cup"

INTERNATIONAL W L T Final Analysis

Ernie Els 4 1 0 Holed chips and pressure putts. Big
Easy did it all--except beat Tiger

Robert Allenby 2 1 2 If this had been the Ryder, U.S.
would've won when he missed on 17

Retief Goosen 3 2 0 Birdied last five holes to beat
Howell-Woods in Saturday sweep

Adam Scott 3 2 0 We thought he was a somebody. Then
he went seven over in singles

Vijay Singh 3 2 0 Short game exposed at fast-running
links, but did drum Toms

Mike Weir 3 2 0 Despite Sunday loss to Furyk, was
next-best to Els for the week

Tim Clark 2 3 0 Straight-hitter was formidable, and
undefeated, while Els's partner

K.J. Choi 2 3 0 Unsung hero holed mile of clutch
putts. Played better than record

Peter Lonard 2 2 0 Big-hitting Australian's putter got
hot in singles win over Funk

Nick Price 2 2 0 Otherwise nice week marred by
putter-breaking outburst on Sunday

Stephen Leaney 1 2 1 Overlooked U.S. Open runner-up came
back twice, for win and halve

Stuart Appleby 1 3 0 Narrow fairways and thick rough have
always caused him problems

Gary Player 0 0 1 Lobbied well for the tie, and his
course was star of the show

Nicklaus dismissed the provision for a playoff as something "made
up by somebody in a back room" at Tour headquarters.