Two years ago the Presidents Cup was inaugurated, and it was exciting not for what it provided—the U.S.'s ho-hum 20-12 victory over the International team—but for what it promised. Sure the format had been lifted from the Ryder Cup (in which the U.S. competes against Europe) but so had the allure: the thrill of pitting two teams that included many of the world's finest golfers against each other.
It still may be Roger Clinton to the Ryder Cup's Bill, but the Presidents Cup began to fulfill its promise last weekend. Played over three days at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., the Cup matches—20 doubles and 12 singles in which a 12-man U.S. team faced a 12-man team from Australia, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe—were mostly stirring, and the theater was consistently good. The outcome wasn't resolved until the 17th hole of the final match, when Fred Couples banged in a 25-foot birdie putt to trump Vijay Singh and give the Americans a 16½-15½ victory. Couples's putt and the delirious boogie with his teammates that followed were exactly the kinds of galvanizing highlights the event needed. (If you missed the putt, don't worry, the replays will be running for, oh, about two years.) Just as important, the Cup turned out to be so presidential, what with the rhetoric and the whiff of scandal.
Actually, it was a welcome change for the golf itself to be generating the headlines, because in the months leading up to the event, the focus had been on the impeachment of David Graham, the former International captain. Graham was replaced on July 15 after a vote by team members, and the controversy became a distraction to the International players. When he took over as Graham's successor, Peter Thomson imposed a gag order on the International squad to try to cool things off.
It was startling, then, that Thomson roiled the waters with an ill-advised remark at a press conference last Thursday, the day before the competition began. Speaking about the Australian combo of Greg Norman and 25-year-old up-and-comer Robert Allenby, who would be playing together, Thomson said, "I think they're invincible, frankly."
Twenty-four hours later, that statement looked as prescient as DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. U.S. captain Arnold Palmer recited it to his players as a challenge to their manhood. He tinkered with his lineup so his most experienced team, Couples and Davis Love III, would square off against Norman-Allenby in the first four-ball match on Friday morning. In a spirited competition, the Yanks came through 2 and 1, with Couples birdieing the last three holes. That morning the American team was hotter than Clinton's poll numbers, opening each of the five matches with a birdie and cruising to a 4-1 lead. "I think Peter Thomson kind of laid down the gauntlet with that comment," Love said.
Hoping to save face, Thomson rejiggered his lineup to ensure a rematch of the top twosomes in Friday afternoon's alternate-shot events. Couples and Love again prevailed, this time one up. The U.S. team of David Duval and Mark O'Meara also won both of its matches, and the day ended with the International team playing Mondale to the U.S.'s Reagan, trailing 7½-2½. That was the score at the same juncture two years ago—a surprise, considering how much stronger this International team was than the original. In '94 Norman (currently the world's No. 1 player) was sidelined by an intestinal virus, and Ernie Els (No. 3) and Jumbo Ozaki (No. 6) turned down invitations to play. Over the next two years Norman and his mates applied considerable peer pressure to bring Els and Ozaki into the fold. In fact, last month at the PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, the Shark jaywalked across two fairways to recruit Ozaki.
At Friday's team dinner Thomson implored his players to keep hope alive. Other means were also used to boost team morale. "We were telling dirty jokes, and the beer was flowing," Norman said on Sunday.
On Saturday morning, in the better ball, Ozaki and Singh derailed Couples-Love, 2 and 1, as the International team won three of five matches to close to 9½-5½ In the afternoon Peter Senior and David Frost, considered the Internationals' sacrificial lambs, shocked the glittery team of Phil Mickelson and Corey Pavin 3 and 2, and three straight U.S. defeats followed. It was left to O'Meara and Scott Hoch to avoid the sweep, which they did when O'Meara hit a miraculous recovery shot—fading it, like Clinton's domestic policy, left to right—into the 18th green for a tap-in par and a one-up victory over Singh and Steve Elkington. Heading into Sunday's 12 singles matches, it was 10½-9½, U.S.
An early rout by Craig Parry over Mark Brooks evened the score, but the U.S. responded with five wins in the next six matches. The Internationals rallied and again forged a tie when Frank Nobilo made the last of five straight birdies to polish off Tom Lehman. With one match left to be decided, the Cup was suddenly all square.
At that point Couples was 2 up with three holes to play. Then Singh nearly jarred his eight-iron on the par-3 16th, winning the hole with a gimme birdie. Couples came to the 17th green just hoping to two-putt from 25 feet. But "when it got [to within] four feet," as he said later, "I knew it was going in the hole. It was a great feeling running to my teammates and celebrating with them." Pause. "Then I felt like an idiot because Vijay still had to putt." Singh's 15-foot birdie attempt hit a spike mark and never scared the hole.