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Jack Nicklaus wonders why some people "just don't get it." He can't understand why there are those who still characterize his U.S. team's tie with the Internationals in the 2003 Presidents Cup as a letdown, a kissing-your-sister dud. Did television somehow filter out the drama? Did the cameras not capture that unprecedented twilight playoff between Ernie Els and Tiger Woods? Did the naysayers not see the excited fans scrambling over the raw dunes of South Africa's Links at Fancourt or hear their exultant yelps as they climbed the steep slope to the clubhouse in the gathering dark?
"I think maybe you had to be there to recognize what it meant to the game of golf," Nicklaus said after stopping by Baltusrol on the eve of the PGA for a press conference and an 18th-hole ceremony commemorating two of his four U.S. Open titles. "People were arm in arm, they were singing as they came away from the greens. Everyone was absolutely ecstatic." Nicklaus then repeated what he has been saying for almost two years: "I think it was the most special event I have ever been involved with."
That's a strong statement, coming from a man who has won 18 major championships and represented the U.S. in two Walker Cups, a World Amateur Team Championship, six World Cups and six Ryder Cups. Nicklaus has also captained two Ryder Cup teams, and his captaincy at this year's Presidents Cup, which will be held Sept. 23-25 at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Lake Manassas, Va., will be his third and final one at the biennial event the PGA Tour launched in 1994 (rosters, page G20). Nicklaus is also confident that his agreement with International captain Gary Player to stop the playoff and share the Cup--amid a mob of players, caddies and officials on the 2nd green after Els and Woods had halved three holes of sudden death--will stand the test of time.
Jerry Kelly, who was 2-2 for the U.S. at Fancourt, thinks the captains got it right. "We all wanted to win more than anything," Kelly said last week after a first-round 70 at Baltusrol, "but we understood what sharing the Cup would do for the game and for South Africa. It was an important statement about where the world is going." No one who was there, Kelly elaborated, could have failed to be moved by the appearance of Republic of South Africa president Thabo Mbeki with former presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the dismantlers of apartheid.
Charles Howell, who split four matches as Woods's partner before beating Australia's Adam Scott 5 and 4, ducked the political implications and simply gushed, "It was the first time I had ever played in a team event, and it was incredible. You couldn't write a story any better. Awesome!"
It seems, though, that only those who were actually at Fancourt, whether playing, watching or sipping champagne between bites of chocolate-dipped strawberries, recall how compelling the competition really was. The Internationals--the best pros in the world from anywhere other than Europe or the U.S.--trailed 9 1/2-6 1/2 after two days but swept the Saturday four-ball matches 6-0. (Els, playing only a few miles from his vacation home on the Garden Route, thrilled the locals by winning consecutive matches with walk-off eagles.) The Americans rallied in the Sunday singles, Woods taming Els 4 and 3 while Kenny Perry held off Zimbabwe's Nick Price, one up. (Nice guy Price broke his putter over his knee in anguish when his six-footer for birdie failed to drop on the final hole.) Kelly, who trailed Durban-born Tim Clark for most of the day, won his match with a birdie on 18 and got a Bear hug from his captain. "That," said Kelly, "is something I'll take with me forever."
The U.S. trailed by a point with two matches to be decided, and both reached the 18th hole. In the first Nicklaus walked into the fairway to tell Chris DiMarco, "I need your point." DiMarco came through, defeating Stuart Appleby one up, but afterward DiMarco said, "I had the biggest lump I've ever had in my throat." That dumped all the pressure on Davis Love III and Australia's Robert Allenby. Love, one up through 17, showed the strain by chunking a difficult chip and bogeying the final hole for a halve. Under a Presidents Cup rule that has since been revoked because of the Fancourt precedent (ties will stand), the captains opened sealed envelopes and read off the names of the players they had preselected to break a tie. The names, to no one's surprise, were Ernie Els and Tiger Woods.
Hardly anyone, it must be admitted, anticipated such a great show. Before South Africa, the Presidents Cup was regarded as a wan copy of the Ryder Cup, the biennial dustup between the pros of the U.S. and Europe. The American players groused that it was unfair to expect them to disrupt their schedules, travel great distances, don a coat and tie and listen to long-winded speeches every single autumn. What's more, with the exception of the one-point U.S. victory in 1996, all the Presidents Cups had been blowouts. For those reasons--and because a trip to South Africa is a budget-buster--only a handful of American journalists made the trip. The European press, having no dogs in the fight, stayed away too.
Their loss. The playoff between Els and Woods, which began on the 18th hole, produced nothing but scrambling pars, but with 10,000 spectators lining the fairways and Hall of Famers Nicklaus and Player sharing the stage, it took on the aura of a classic battle. Woods would later describe the playoff as "nerve-racking," and Els would say it was "probably the first time I've ever felt my legs shaking." On their third playoff hole, the 231-yard par-3 2nd, Woods had a climbing-dropping-twisting 15-footer for par. When the ball dropped, his emphatic arm pump was illuminated by dozens of camera flashes. ("Tiger's final putt made my hair stand up," recalls Jeff Sluman, whom Nicklaus recently reappointed as his assistant captain.) Els, with the weight of Africa on his shoulders, then made his six-footer for the halve. And that, Nicklaus and Player decided, was where it should end.
The decision to share the Cup, while controversial at the time, seems in retrospect to have given the Presidents Cup a nice patina of principle and sportsmanship. The Ryder Cup, by way of contrast, has been marred by a decade of gamesmanship, chauvinism, loutish crowd behavior and endless finger-pointing. "Every event has its own character," Nicklaus said last week, "but South Africa was so great that I hope the Ryder Cup would learn a lesson from it. These are basically goodwill events. They're for bragging rights, that's all. That's the spirit the Ryder Cup should be played in."