This Time, The Americans Finish Strong

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 26, 2005

The problems for American golf on the international stage started long ago, as Jack Nicklaus well remembers, because the pivotal moment happened on his own Muirfield Village course in the '87 Ryder Cup when he was the U.S. captain. That's when the elite players of the United States first learned that, like everybody else, they could choke. And keep on choking.

"I had a good team that year but they never won the 18th hole all week. Lost it every time," Nicklaus said after his team had won the Presidents Cup, 18 1/2 -15 1/2 , because all three American players whose matches came to the 18th hole -- Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco -- made crucial, clutch birdies on the final hole.

"That 18th hole [in '87] cost them the matches," Nicklaus said. "The 18th hole this week won us the matches. You've got to be able to play the last hole and finish. Believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it again. That's why I'm so happy. This [victory] elevated every one of these guys so the next time out they will believe in what they can do."

The "next time out," of course, would refer to next year in the cursed, jinxed, humiliating Ryder Cup that the European team has held in its pub-crawling, cigar-smoking, back-slapping clutches after eight of the last 10 infuriating meetings over the last 20 years. Oh, yes, this Presidents Cup was all about the next Ryder Cup. The U.S. team can't wait to get back at the blood-brother Europeans who usually get to fall down laughing on the final green, chuckling their brains out at the way the stiff-necked millionaire Americans have gagged under pressure -- especially on the final holes of close matches -- once again.

After yesterday's victory at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, one American after another heaped testimonials on Nicklaus.

"Everybody thinks the Americans don't care. . . . We care a lot, and this is big. We wanted this bad," said DiMarco, whose final 15-foot birdie on the 18th hole closed out Stuart Appleby 1-up and clinched the Cup. "We wanted this for Mr. Nicklaus."

Jack, luckily, still does not buy the hearts-and-flowers theory of sport. He knows the truth. His team was using the "win-one-for-Jack" crutch to help get over all its nagging psychological and team-chemistry problems in recent years.

"I don't know why in the world they care about winning one for an old man. They need to win one for themselves," said Nicklaus, aware that nine of his 12 players were on the '04 Ryder Cup Titanic. "American golf has not won in international competition for a few years."

In a year or two, perhaps we'll know whether this week at RTJ, with the touch of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus setting the tone, will actually transform the Americans into a true team. One player brought a sports page to read to the final interviews because he doubted he'd be asked questions and did a squeaky imitation of Nicklaus's voice. These guys aren't out of "Hoosiers" yet.

But this event might be a turning point. This time, it was the U.S. team at a victory podium doing its impromptu teasing skits as Nicklaus played father-figure moderator.

If one central U.S. player has to be melded with the rest of the team by a strong, even sarcastic captain's hand, it's Mickelson. And maybe only Nicklaus has the stature to do it.

Mickelson was asked about the indelible moment when, after making a five-foot birdie putt on the 18th to square his match with Angel Cabrera, he celebrated as though he thought he'd just won the Presidents Cup -- because he thought he had.


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