Without winner, Cup is half empty
by Todd Behrendt
Imagine if you will, Justin Leonard and Jose Maria Olazabal walking off the 18th green at Brookline Country Club having come to the mutual conclusion that neither team deserved to lose the 1999 Ryder Cup and agreeing that the Americans and the Europeans should "share" the title.
Now stop laughing.
There are typically two reasons given for the Presidents Cup's second-class citizen status when compared to the Ryder Cup. The first is the Presidents Cup's lack of history; it's certainly harder to get as fired up about an event that's existed since 1996. The second is the lack of enmity that exists between the United States and international teams.
And it was that latter explanation which was on full display Sunday in South Africa when the two teams agreed to share the 2003 Presidents Cup after Tiger Woods and Ernie Els couldn't settle anything after three sudden-death playoff holes. Because if Woods had been playing Colin Montgomerie instead of Els, you can bet the competition wouldn't have been called because of darkness. In fact, it's not hard to picture both teams lining the fairways with flashlights and tiki torches until a winner had been decided.
Instead, we were treated to this post-tie rationalization from U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus: "I have never seen two teams that played harder or played better. I did not find a team that deserved to lose."
Now I suppose you could argue that a team that blows a three-point lead on the final day might not exactly be worthy of victory. And there might be some support for the theory that a player who only needs to halve the final hole of his match to guarantee his squad victory but fails doesn't deserve to get his hands on the Cup.
But that's not my real problem with the decision.
It's because an otherwise thrilling event -- one that would have gone a long way toward establishing the Presidents Cup as a worthy counterpart to the Ryder Cup -- was completely undermined by the lack of a winner.
A different team led after each day of the four-day competition, with the International squad taking a 12 1/2-9 1/2 lead into the final round after sweeping Saturday's four-ball matches, something that had never happened at the Presidents Cup before. Just like they did at Brookline in '99, the Americans mounted a furious rally during the singles competition and were on the verge of defending the title they won in 2000 before Davis Love III blew a 1-up lead over Robert Allenby on the final hole to allow the International squad to forge a 17-17 tie.
Then there were those three playoff holes featuring the top two players in the world going head-to-head, matching par for par to keep the competition going. It couldn't get much better than the third, and what would prove to be final, of those holes. Woods sank a 15-footer for par, putting the pressure squarely on Els, who then responded with a tricky par putt of his own to halve the hole.
"Man, that was actually one of the most nerve-racking moments I've ever had in golf," Woods said afterward.
But ultimately, all I'll remember from the 2003 Presidents Cup is the lack of a satisfactory conclusion.
And why did it have to be this way?
While I'd like to give the U.S. team the benefit of the doubt in this case and attribute the decision to an overriding sense of fair play and sportsmanship, I can't quite bring myself to do it. Not when Nicklaus' first suggestion was that a tie would result in the defending champion (the United States in this case) retaining the Cup, just like in Ryder Cup play. The International team's response to that plan? Let's play Monday. Only then did Nicklaus relent and offer to share the trophy.
Too many American players have expressed reservations about having to play a team event every year (especially in those years when they have to leave the continental U.S. to do it) to consider anything other than a Sunday night flight home as the primary reason behind the draw. Because the only thing more distasteful to the U.S. squad than having to travel to South Africa at the end of a long season to play for something less than a wad of guaranteed money and the possibility of a six-figure winner's check is having to do all that and stick around for an extra day to boot.
The Americans couldn't bring themselves to say that though without looking like hopelessly pampered athletes who'll soon put aside all their concerns about that long PGA Tour season to play in handfuls of lucrative silly season events. Maybe that's why their stated rationales ended up seeming just so incoherent.
"To have two guys decide the fate of the whole team in extra holes like that, I don't think any of the sides felt comfortable with that to begin with," Woods said. "We're here as a team. And we'd like to decide it as a team."
So sticking around until Monday and having all 12 members participate in some sort of playoff would have worked for Tiger? Somehow I doubt it.
Besides, if Love had just halved the final hole of his match, he'd have beaten Allenby 1-up and the Americans would have won the Cup, 17 1/2-16 1/2. And Woods wouldn't have complained one bit about two guys deciding the fate of the whole team.
But that wasn't the most ridiculous post-playoff statement. No, that honor belongs to the 18-time Grand Slam winner trying to obscure the fact that nobody won with an avalanche of hyperbole.
"It's the most unbelievable event the game of golf has ever seen," Nicklaus said.
Sure. Forget Sarazen's double eagle at Augusta, Nicklaus' final major championship at the age of 46 or Tiger's 15-stroke victory at Pebble Beach. The most unbelievable event the game of golf has ever seen is a draw in a team event that's only been around since 1996.
I'm sorry, but it's not even the most unbelievable team event in the last four years -- a distinction that still belongs to the 1999 Ryder Cup.
If only because someone actually won that competition.