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.