How the U.S. Took One For The Team

October 07, 2007

Let's be realisticabout it: Montreal is a great city, and it's an honor to represent yourcountry, but you know that Tiger Woods would have welcomed a bye week. He'dnever say that, but his schedule does not lie. Since Aug. 2 he has played inthe World Golf Championship in Akron (a win); the PGA Championship in Tulsa(W); his own FedEx event in Boston (T2); the FedEx event in Chicago (W); theTour Championship in Atlanta (W); and the Presidents Cup (W). That's six eventsin two months. From a guy who likes to play 20 times a year. Did he really needthe 90-minute bus ride (on the first day) from the Queen Elizabeth hotel indowntown Montreal to the Royal Montreal Golf Club, way out in the suburbs? Toplay in an event that is essentially a PGA Tour marketing scheme with no paydayfor the players? Not likely.

But there he was,playing hard (as always), cheerleading from the first cut, low-fiving histeammates and their caddies, going on a golf-cart joyride with an opponent,Vijay Singh. All that, and more. After Woody Austin went for his involuntarydip on 14 last Friday, Woods leaned into the left ear of Mrs. Austin, whom hebarely knows, and said, "I just want you to know I offered Woody myclothes." You could have knocked Shannon Austin over with a headcover.

If you've beenwatching Tiger closely over the years in these team events, you've seen him athis most reserved. Last week he might as well have been wearing a lampshade.Upper management set the tone. He was playing for Jack Nicklaus, a man with nouse for pomp, and Nicklaus's deputy, Jeff Sluman, a pro's pro but one with animpish side. Captain Jack had three imperatives for his dozen players: Havefun, enjoy the golf and have fun.

When the four-dayevent was over—and the Americans had defeated the International squad handily,19½ to 14½—Nicklaus talked about his I-team counterpart, Gary Player. Duringthe closing ceremony, Nicklaus called Player "the best competitor andfriend I've had in golf," and both pensioners got weepy. Could you imagineWoods, 30-plus years from now, ever talking about his. . . . Hold it, holdit:

Who is Tiger'sbest competitor and friend in golf? Nicklaus and Player had something thatWoods, in his era, does not: players who competed fiercely and enjoyed oneanother's company immensely.

"Jack and Ihave said this to each other many times," Player said on Sunday night.

"Tiger'smaking more money than we ever dreamed of, but not in a million years would Itrade our era for his."

Last week Tigerand Team U.S.A. got a taste of camaraderie. There was an energy on the clubthat you didn't find on last year's losing U.S. Ryder Cup team in Ireland. Ofcourse, you didn't find it on the '98 U.S. Presidents Cup team either, the onethat lost to the Internationals in Australia shortly before Christmas. Nicklauswas the boss man of that team, too. Big Jack, open and candid in public in waysthat Woods is not, has said the problem with that team was that many of theAmerican players, along with their captain, didn't want to be there.

In Montreal thatissue was defused, even though some of the players had recently gone throughthe four-week grindfest known as the FedEx Cup playoffs. (Yes, playing golf formoney is work.) Jack kept the Presidents Cup mellow from the top, while theP-Cup rookies— Hunter Mahan and Lucas Glover and Zach Johnson and thesnorkelin' Austin—pumped up the volume from below. "I can't say enough forwhat the rookies brought to this team," said Phil Mickelson, one of theelders. "Especially Woody, at age 43. Their energy and excitement, itreally got us going." On the Thursday opener, when six two-man teams playedalternate shot, the U.S. team won five matches and halved one.

Ernie Els lostthat day, playing with Angel Cabrera, but went 3-2-0 for the week. His team'sloss actually annoyed the Big Easy, and when it was over, Player was saying hedidn't know if the International team would want him back as captain, as theI-team members were not thrilled with how their two-man teams were paired (butthat's always easy to say after you lose). Moreover, Els noted, the U.S. teamhas a built-in advantage over the International team, because the U.S. fieldsan alternate-shot team annually, in the Ryder Cup as well as in the PresidentsCup. It has more chances to figure out how to play one of golf's most peculiarformats.

Last week theAmericans won 10½ points in alternate shot (a.k.a. foursomes), out of apossible 11. Ouch! Jack's method of figuring out the pairings was to ask theplayers to list, anonymously, whom they did and did not want to play with. TomLehman did the same thing as Ryder Cup captain last year, with one significantdifference. When Nicklaus posed the question, it seemed casual. At the RyderCup, nothing seems casual. "In Ryder Cup, I've always been told who I'mplaying with," said Scott Verplank, who went 4-0-0 last week.

Woods made thingseasy for Jack. He told his captain, "Play me with anybody." Woods wonone match with Charles Howell and one with David Toms and lost one and won onewith Jim Furyk. He also lost his Sunday singles match to Mike Weir. Jackengineered that Sunday matchup pitting the pride of Canadian golf against thebest player today. Woods won't allow any best-of-show inflation beyondthat.

"Jack Nicklausis the greatest golfer of all time," Woods said more than once last week.There are people who would dispute that— Tiger has won more (61 tournaments) atage 31 than Jack (37) had, and some of his winning margins have been crazy big.(Big Jack never won a U.S. Open by 15.) But for Woods, it's useful to keep Jackway out in front. Jack has 18 professional major titles to Tiger's 13. The gapkeeps him hungry.

But Tiger iscatching up to Jack in other ways, too. Jack's life path has become Tiger'spath as well. Marriage. Death. Fatherhood. Becoming a course architect andrunning a tournament and winning and improving on both sides of the 30 divide."For two guys who don't spend a lot of time together, there's a closenessthere," Woods said years ago. Nowadays, they share a locker room at AugustaNational. Tiger plays in the Memorial every year. And Woods has now played forNicklaus four times in the Presidents Cup. In Montreal, Woods was often nearhis captain—at team meals, in a press conference, on the team bus, in thefairways— sometimes with his long forearm resting on Jack's shoulder. Tigerfinally found a team competition he could thoroughly enjoy, courtesy of Jack.Now, said Woods, who in the last 18 months has experienced the death of hisfather, Earl, and the birth of his daughter, Sam Alexis, "I have a betterperspective on what he went through in his career. I can understand why hebecame motivated, why he played better after his father passed and also whyyour life becomes more balanced when you have children."

Jack left the dooropen for returning for the 2009 Presidents Cup, which will be played at HardingPark in San Francisco. He left the door open for serving again as a Ryder Cupcaptain, too. Last week was the first time a U.S. team, in either the Ryder Cupor the Presidents Cup, had won a road game since the Americans took a Ryder Cupat the Belfry in 1993. Toms predicted that Paul Azinger, the U.S. Ryder Cupcaptain for next year, would be checking in with Nicklaus and Sluman, lookingfor tips.

But you almostcan't compare the two events. The Ryder Cup began as Great Britain and Ireland,the countries that gave birth to the game, taking on the U.S., the country thatadvanced it. There was a natural rivalry there. When the U.S. plays the rest ofthe world, what's there to get worked up about?

That's the worstthing about the Presidents Cup, and the best thing, too. On the NBC telecast,the announcers spoke of the intensity of the Canadian fans. They weren'tintense. They were polite and knowledgeable, and the $7 glasses of vin rougethey drank only seemed to make them more mellow . What they did was cheer forWeir, who went 3-1-1. And even when he was playing Tiger, you never had tofight anybody to get a glimpse of the action.

The course waseasy to walk and easy to play. (It was Birdie City out there.) The apple treeswere showing fruit, and the air was autumnal and ever changing. On one stillafternoon, a sudden wind came up and hundreds of yellow maple leaves camefloating off a single tree. Amy Mickelson, Phil's wife, walked through thefalling leaves and said, "That was random." She uses random forunexpected. It was nice.

The whole thingwas random. When it was over, Tiger was loose and Sluman was wearing Woody'snew snorkeling mask and Jack was talking about doing it one more time and Erniewas annoyed. You couldn't have predicted any of that, right? It's a relief,really. Random is the death of the prediction game.

There was noraucous victory party on Sunday night. Why should there have been? People weretired. There was only sleep.

See AlanShipnuck's Hot List at GOLF.com

Woods leaned into the left ear of Mrs. Austin, whom hebarely knows, and said, "I WANT YOU TO KNOW I OFFERED WOODY MYCLOTHES."

PHOTOTIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGESBUDDY SYSTEM Woods and Toms steamrolled Geoff Ogilvy and Nick 'Hern 5 and 3 in Saturday four-ball. THREE PHOTOSSCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (3)DUNK SHOT Austin's dive on 14, which he followed with three match-saving birdies, became a P-Cup instant classic. PHOTOMATT CAMPBELL/EPA (RIGHT)[See caption above]

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)