The presidents cup, the team match-play event that isn't the Ryder Cup and never, by god, will be, has been an easy target for critics. In the U.S. its detractors include the players. "The Americans probably don't talk about it until the day before their two wild-card picks are made," says Bradley Hughes of Australia, who played in the inaugural Presidents Cup, in 1994. "It's just another thing for them. We look forward to it more and check all summer to see who's going to be on our team."
The fourth Presidents Cup will be played next week at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in suburban Washington, D.C., and you should know that even if the tournament doesn't matter as much as the Ryder Cup, it has some redeeming qualities. For instance, Tiger Woods will play, and that alone may finally put the event on the map. There are two kinds of tournaments these days—those with Tiger and those without him—and only the Withs matter.
The Presidents Cup is also a virtual music festival. At the opening ceremonies you can listen to nine national anthems—one for the U.S. and eight for the close-knit International team, which this year has players from Australia, Canada, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand, Paraguay, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Internationals are "Potpourri for $200, Alex," so the nationalism that fuels and occasionally ignites the Ryder Cup will never set this baby afire.
Another plus is that there's still room for sentimentality in the Presidents Cup. A revered old television commentator can be given the captain's duties. Now that you mention it, longtime CBS analyst Ken Venturi will do the job for the U.S. this year. Presidents Cup captains are seldom second-guessed, which is a good thing, because David Toms, who was left off the U.S. team, played impressive golf on Sunday to beat Canada's Mike Weir, a member of the International team, in a playoff at the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill, in Williamsburg, Va. Toms was passed over as a wildcard addition to the team despite having won twice in 1999 and finishing 13th on the Presidents Cup points list. Justin Leonard wasn't chosen, either. Instead, Venturi went with two old warhorses, Paul Azinger and Loren Roberts. Nevertheless, Toms said after his win, "I think Ken made great choices. I had my chances to make the top 10. Maybe with that added pressure, I didn't perform."
This is the stuff of a Ryder Cup potboiler, and it could bring some heat to this Presidents Cup. Remember when Curtis Strange was chosen for the '95 Ryder Cup team by captain Lanny Wadkins and then contributed to its defeat? Wadkins's move is still being disparaged.
Another thing the Presidents Cup has going for it is that its outcome, just like the Ryder Cup's, is no sure thing. Sure, the U.S. appears to be stronger, with five of the eight top-ranked players in the world. (The Internationals have only one, No. 2 Ernie Els.) Still, a U.S. team that included Woods got shellacked 20� to 11� in the '98 Presidents Cup, at Royal Melbourne. The nine-point margin was one more than the sum of the last seven victory margins in the Ryder Cup. That stunning loss doesn't seem to have given any sense of urgency to this year's Presidents Cup, however.
"The fact that Tiger will be there makes it a big deal," Azinger says. "The Internationals are going to be very motivated. If our guys are caught flat-footed again, we'll get smoked. The challenge for Ken Venturi is to give the players a reason to want to win."
The Americans clearly lacked a reason last time. The event was moved to December in Australia in an effort to expand its appeal abroad and to give the Internationals a home game after two visits to Virginia. The U.S. players weren't keen to travel that far or to play in December, which is all that's left of their shrinking off-season. "I think we actually went down there expecting to win," says former U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen. "Obviously, we weren't ready to. Maybe some guys didn't want to be there, although I didn't sense that. The first match went to the 18th hole. One of our guys had a fairly short putt, then Frank Nobilo holed out from 45 feet. It really hurt. Most of us had been at Valderrama the year before [for the '97 Ryder Cup], and it was the same thing: We'd hit it close, they'd make a bomb, and then we'd miss. They got out ahead, and we didn't have enough heart to come back. After the first morning session, we were like deer caught in the headlights."
If his aim was to improve the team's heart quotient, Venturi may have made shrewd choices in Azinger, 40, and Roberts, 45. They're proven under pressure and among the Tour's best in putting—a category in which the U.S., with Woods, Notah Begay III, David Duval and Jim Furyk, should have an advantage. Azinger, a fiery Ryder Cup leader in '89, '91 and '93, was a U.S. co-captain in the '94 Presidents Cup when he was recovering from cancer.
"I think Ken picked me because I've been playing well," says Azinger, whose victory in January's Sony Open was his first since the '93 PGA Championship. "Experience is overrated. I had no experience in my first Ryder Cup, and I played great. Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo have all the experience anybody could want, and they can't break an egg. Ken thought I would bring certain elements to the team, but if I had been shooting 71s and 72s, I don't think those elements would've been as intriguing to him."