The simple answer is that unusual wind conditions and a leadership vacuum allowed tired, unmotivated players suffering from jet lag to give a halfhearted effort too close to Christmas on an unfamiliar course in front of a partisan crowd. That's the simple answer. Or at least that's the consensus answer. Phil Mickelson, who had only two halves in four matches, said, "If we were to make up reasons, it would take away from their wonderful play this week."
Some will blame the captain. Nicklaus was the first U.S. skipper to lose the Ryder Cup on American soil (at his own Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, in 1987), and now he is the first to lose the Presidents Cup on anybody's soil. At times last week he seemed detached and distracted. He called his players "my children" and said his role in the matches was essentially to provide an encouraging word and simply to be there, like the dutiful dad who leaves work to watch his boys play pee-wee football. Strategically Nicklaus was a conscientious objector. He paired players who had not previously teamed together because he thought it would be "neat" for them to make new friends. He let some players pick their own partners. "Just because you're selected as the captain," he said, "everybody thinks you're a strategic genius."
The real shocker, when you consider that only eight months ago he contended at the Masters, is that Nicklaus looked old and tired. An arthritic hip has sapped him of his physical vitality, and emotionally he seems drained by recent business setbacks, including a management scandal at his public company, Golden Bear International. "He looked smaller at the end of the day," said an Adelaide woman, sympathy in her voice.
To be fair, that day was Friday. At the end of that scorcher, all the Americans—save perhaps Couples and Woods, who beat Els and Singh, 5 and 4, in the morning foursomes—looked smaller and more vulnerable. Furthermore, Jack's players voiced their unequivocal support. Said Leonard, "Mr. Nicklaus has done an incredible job."
If not bad captaining, what? The calendar? This Presidents Cup was played during the American holiday season, which is traditionally a time for rest, family gatherings and gazillion-dollar, made-for-TV exhibitions. It's not a time to take on the Southern Hemisphere, where the golf season is at its peak. There is also a suspicion that the American players don't really want the event to soar. They already have a love-dread relationship with that biennial gut check, the Ryder Cup. A gloves-off Presidents Cup would make their ordeal annual, like taxes and flu shots.
The players reject that theory as well. "It's not a lack of heart or desire," said O'Meara. Jim Furyk, who scored only a point, said, "I've been asked whether we were too loose or too tight." He shrugged. "We just got beat."
Nicklaus, who doesn't expect to be captain when the matches return to Virginia in 2000, allowed that his team's unfamiliarity with Royal Melbourne may have hurt, just as the U.S. team's ignorance of Valderrama in Spain probably cost them last year's Ryder Cup. "Our guys had never seen the course under the north wind conditions," he said. But just as quickly he dismissed the wind as a factor. "It was the putts and chips they holed. They produced shots when they needed to produce them."
Not surprisingly, the other side thought the outcome was more a matter of Australian audacity, New Zealand zeal, Paraguayan pride, Fijian fortitude, Zimbabwian zest, South African sagacity and Japanese...sushi. "The thing with Kiwis," said Nobilo, after he and Turner had won on Friday, "we will nip at somebody's heels all day for 18 holes, and eventually we will take the leg off."
A wild image, but certainly the U.S. players didn't have a leg to stand on when they teed off on Sunday afternoon in the singles needing 10½ out of a possible 12 points to retain the Cup. Thomson led off with the feisty Parry and then chose veteran Nick Price to follow. Parry dusted a struggling Leonard 5 and 3, and Price snuffed out Duval in 17, making the remaining 10 matches a December anomaly—a televised exhibition with nothing on the line but individual pride. (For the record, the current world No. 1—Woods—defeated the Australian icon and former world No. 1, Greg Norman, one up.)
It was left for Scott Hoch, one of only six Americans to score at least two points, to put the International team's win in perspective. "We knew it was going to be a matter of time," he said on Saturday evening, surveying the wreckage that was the U.S. squad. "But with the team we had, we didn't think it would be this year."