On sunday evening at the 18th hole of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course in Gainesville, Va., Chris DiMarco stood over a putt that could win the Presidents Cup. The PGA Tour's ShotLink lasers measured it at exactly 14 feet, four inches. The emotion riding on it was incalculable. ¬∂ There were no rookies on this U.S. team. The core group of top Americans has endured the humiliation and aggravation of not having won a Ryder Cup since 1999 or a Presidents Cup since 2000. DiMarco was the only American with a winning record at last year's Ryder Cup, and he said last week that he still wakes up hearing "Olé! Olé! Olé!"--the lyrical chant of the European boosters. ¬∂ But for DiMarco the putt for the Presidents Cup was about not only beating the other guys but also winning one for Jack
Nicklaus, a nonwinner in two previous stints as captain who was winding down an emotional year during which he bid adieu to the Masters and the British Open. Yet Nicklaus's greatest sadness had nothing to do with golf: In March his 17-month-old grandson, Jake, drowned in a hot tub. At a team dinner last week the players presented Captain Jack with a painting of Jake to be hung in the newly dedicated Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Palm Beach, Fla. "It's the sweetest thing that's ever been done for me," Nicklaus said. "I was crying like a baby. Half the team was in tears. It was wonderful." The emotion of the night further galvanized an already close team.
So those slippery 14 feet, four inches were for Nicklaus and for DiMarco's loyal teammates--to say nothing of God and country--but they were for DiMarco too. As he looked over his putt, he flashed back to this year's Masters, at which he made a do-or-die six-footer on the final hole that forced a playoff with Tiger Woods. That ended in disappointment, as have so many other tournaments for DiMarco, who, amazingly, hasn't won since 2002. This Presidents Cup had already been a career-defining performance--he had gone a team-best 3-0-1 in foursomes and four-balls--but now he had the chance to add the exclamation point. It was not an accident that DiMarco was deciding the Cup in the final singles match. Says U.S. assistant captain Jeff Sluman, "Nobody understands the psychology of a golfer better than Captain Nicklaus. He wanted Chris there at the end."
DiMarco was not feeling so bulletproof. "I was so nervous I thought I might whiff," he said. In situations like that he has a mental trick: "I think about my children. It takes me out of the moment." So before stepping to his ball, DiMarco pictured his nine-year-old son, Cristian, running up and giving him a fist pump. He imagined his six-year-old daughter, Amanda, doing one of her silly dances. And in his mind he heard his 20-month-old daughter, Abigale, saying, "Love you, Dad-deee."
DiMarco made a perfect stroke, and the putt was so pure that he began celebrating before the ball fell into the cup. In the ensuing bedlam a hoarse Justin Leonard said, "This is right up there with anything I've experienced." This from a British Open champ who was the hero of the 1999 Ryder Cup, one of the most intense sporting events of all time.
The final margin of a nail-biting week would be U.S. 18 1/2, Internationals 15 1/2. In the end DiMarco's putt was not for his kids or his captain but something larger. The Presidents Cup has always lacked a singular moment to help carve out its place in the sports firmament. Until now the most memorable things about it had been a cap embroidered tiger who? and a handshake in the dark between two captains, Nicklaus and Gary Player, who had just torn up the rule book and invented an awkward tie. Now there is DiMarco's walk-off birdie, capping not only a thrilling week of action but also perhaps signaling a resurgence of American golf. "The competition and the sportsmanship is good for the game," said Davis Love III. "Winning is good for us."
It was a fitting tribute to team play that on a squad stocked with superstars the heroes were a pair of grinders, DiMarco and Jim Furyk. The former has a funny putting grip and the latter a zany swing, but they performed superbly while also inspiring the U.S.'s enigmatic megatalents, Woods and Phil Mickelson, whose indifferent play and bad mojo went a long way toward sinking the last Ryder Cup team.
Woods's turnaround week did not begin auspiciously. He came in 10-17-1 in partner play in seven Ryder and Presidents Cups, having been thrown together with 14 teammates in a desperate attempt to find someone, anyone, who could break through his lone-wolf intensity. During last Thursday's foursomes Fred Couples was not that guy. The 45-year-old captain's pick's ball striking was inconsistent and his putting shaky, and he and Woods were run over 4 and 3 by Retief Goosen and Adam Scott, who would go 3-0-1 as a pair.
Mickelson picked up the slack with spirited play that was inspired in large part by the fist-pumping enthusiasm of his partner, DiMarco. Mickelson had come into the week on a six-match losing streak at the Presidents Cup, having been defeated in singles in 2000 and skunked in five matches in '03. During a dinner early in the week Nicklaus was not shy about needling the woebegone lefthander. Says Mickelson, "Captain Nicklaus said all we need is a half point more than last time, and he kind of looked at me and said, 'You just have to tie one match--man, c'mon!'"
DiMarco is so much shorter and straighter than Mickelson that Nicklaus didn't think their games would mesh, but the captain says he was "overruled" by the team on the pairing. Fred Funk explained, "Chris is such a go-get-'em, in-your-face guy.... He almost deflects attention from Phil and lets Phil relax a little."
All square after 13 holes against Tim Clark and Nick O'Hern, DiMarco and Mickelson executed flawlessly down the stretch for a 1-up victory. Woods rewarded Mickelson with a hearty hug, which was a long way from the famously frosty glare he gave Phil when they were paired at the 2004 Ryder Cup.
Sensing he had found his horses, Captain Jack sent DiMarco and Mickelson out first for the Friday four-balls. DiMarco produced clutch birdies on 15 and 17 to steal a halve from Angel Cabrera and Michael Campbell. Now it was time for Woods to step up, especially since there was some doubt whether his 15th career partner would show up at all on the 1st tee. Two weeks before, at the 84 Lumber Classic, Furyk strained muscles in his ribs, and the injury flared during the first day of competition. Furyk was in so much pain on Thursday (when he and Funk halved with Vijay Singh and Mark Hensby) that by the 6th tee he was flat on his back, receiving treatment from a physical therapist. He felt good enough to tee it up on Friday with Woods, who was nursing his own rib injury. The therapist on hand to tend to Furyk also wound up icing Woods's ribs throughout the round, but that did nothing to cool off Tiger, as he birdied five of the first 11 holes en route to a 3-and-2 victory over Hensby and Stuart Appleby. For Woods it was his first victory in a Presidents Cup four-ball. "I'm going to go back to the team room and say, 'I [didn't] even have to play, hardly!'" said Furyk, who, in fact, made a 20-footer for birdie on the 12th and then iced the win on 16 by almost holing out from the fairway.
After two days the Internationals led 6 1/2 to 5 1/2, with 10 points up for grabs during Saturday's double session. The most memorable match was Furyk-Woods versus Appleby-Singh, featuring a wild back nine during which only one hole was halved. Two down with two to play, Woods and Furyk birdied the final two holes to steal a momentum-turning halve. One of Woods's biggest fist pumps of the Cup came after the Americans' 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole--and it was his partner who stroked it. Last week Woods's enthusiasm and comfort level were at an alltime high for a team event, probably because he saw so much of himself in Furyk. Said Woods, "Tell you what, even though we have different styles of play, our personalities are very similar in how we approach the game and how we compete."
With the teams tied at 8 1/2 going into the afternoon, the four-balls were again dominated by DiMarco and Furyk and their respective partners. DiMarco and Mickelson overwhelmed O'Hern and Peter Lonard 6 and 5, a rout that was keyed by DiMarco's hole in one at the 7th, only the second ace in Presidents Cup history.
Meanwhile, Furyk birdied six of the first 12 holes to carry Woods in a rematch with Appleby and Singh. As is his wont, Woods asserted himself at a crucial time, slashing a spectacular shot out of the rough on the 16th hole to within 17 feet. While Furyk and Woods studied the line, discussed the speed, examined the green's topography, ruminated on the barometric pressure, rechecked the line, tested the wind and otherwise continued to dither over the putt, Singh ambled 75 yards from the front of the green up an embankment to where a handful of his teammates and their wives were idling. "It's like watching paint dry," he said sharply. Then again, you could paint a good-sized bedroom during Appleby's preshot routine, so maybe Singh should have tempered his criticism.
Eventually Woods rattled in his birdie putt for a 1-up lead and the Internationals couldn't answer, the U.S. ultimately winning 2 up. After a long day of golf the Presidents Cup was exactly where it was upon leaving South Africa two years ago: tied.
The major intrigue surrounding the Sunday singles matchups concerned Singh, the putative leader of the Internationals in the absence of Ernie Els, who is recovering from knee surgery. There was gleeful anticipation of another tussle with Woods, but Goosen was the Internationals' best player last week, and Nicklaus elected to match Woods against him. Anyway, Couples had already called dibs on Singh, saying in a team meeting he thought he could take down the big man from Fiji. "Freddie's always a leader on these teams," says Love. "It was a veteran move for him to ask to play Vijay."
The singles began as a red-white-and-blue rout. Batting leadoff, Leonard put the first point on the board--and got his first singles win in six tries at Presidents and Ryder Cups--stunning Clark with eagles on the 10th and 12th holes. David Toms (page G4), with five birdies and two eagles, and Kenny Perry (eight birdies in 15 holes) quickly followed with thunderous victories. But on cue the Internationals, led by Goosen, rallied.
Woods had come out with his face twisted into a scowl and his swing in a sweet groove, but Goosen didn't even seem to notice. Woods made birdie on the par-5 3rd, but Goosen stole the hole with a 45-footer for eagle. Woods went 1 up on the 4th when he chipped in for birdie, but the Goose squared the match again at the 9th with a 50-foot birdie putt. He took a 1-up lead with an improbable birdie from the rough on the par-4 16th, and then he brought Woods to his knees on 17. After flailing his drive into the trees, Woods had to kneel down to punch out, and the ensuing bogey ended the match 2 and 1, and gave him his first loss in four Presidents Cup singles matches.
Once again Furyk rode to the rescue. With six birdies against no bogeys he dispatched the previously undefeated Scott, running his alltime singles record in Ryder and Presidents Cup play to 7-0-1. The score was 15-14 for the Americans when Couples-Singh reached the 18th tee all square. To the Americans clustered around the 18th green there was a hopeful vibe. Said Sluman, "People may think otherwise, but Freddie's the alltime fighter and scrapper." With Singh in with a par, Couples had a downhill 21-footer for birdie on a line similar to the one DiMarco would face. Couples made his best stroke of the day, and in a preview of things to come, Couples was dancing on the green before the ball disappeared into the hole.
Freddie is so beloved by his teammates that Love got tears in his eyes on the 14th green when he heard about the upset. Dry-eyed, Davis drilled his birdie putt, helping the Presidents Cup's alltime points leader to a 4-and-3 win over O'Hern, which gave the U.S. its 17th point. With only two matches on the course the Americans now couldn't lose the Cup. The only question was whether they would spare us another tie.
Mickelson kept the suspense going, making a spectacular birdie on the 18th hole to square his match with Cabrera. Per a change in the rules, rather than settling for a halve, they proceeded to the 1st hole for sudden death, ceding the 18th to Appleby and DiMarco.
The match had been a doozy. DiMarco topped Appleby's birdies on the 14th and 15th holes but went 1 down when Appleby threw another bird at him on 16. DiMarco then drew even with a gutsy par on 17.
Appleby is the golf pro from central casting--tall, square-jawed, with a gorgeous swing that makes the game look almost too easy. But the difference between him and a fearless player like DiMarco could be found in their birdie tries on the 18th hole. With a chance at everlasting glory, Appleby couldn't make his putt. DiMarco, inspired by his captain and his kids, couldn't miss.
The major intrigue surrounding the singles matchups concerned Singh. "Freddie's always been a leader on these teams," says Love.
"IT WAS A VETERAN MOVE FOR HIM TO ASK TO PLAY VIJAY."