Fun? Stare at the word long enough and it begins to look weird, like a nonsense word. Fun. Fun. Fun.

Listen to the professional golfers talk about "fun" at the Presidents Cup and the same thing happens.

"It's a fun competition," Davis Love III tells reporters of the contest between 12 Americans and 12 internationals.

"It's going to be fun," Fred Couples echoes.

"We're going to have a lot of fun," says the U.S. captain, Jack Nicklaus.

"It's going to be a fun week," Australian Mark Hensby says. "I think it's going to be fun."

Yeah. We get it already. The Presidents Cup, which ends tomorrow, is supposed to be enjoyable and relaxed. And, superficially, it does appear to be a more laid-back contest than the biannual Ryder Cup or the grueling week-in, week-out Professional Golf Association tournaments.

With its smiley-face atmosphere, the Presidents Cup stands out because, admit it, most of the time there is not much fun anymore -- in sports or in life. Fun has been taken out of the American equation. Some schools have abolished recess. Dodge ball is deemed too dangerous. There are strategy books for rock, paper, scissors. Sex is dicey. It's as if the Montgomery County government has taken over American culture.

Here at the Robert Trent Jones course in Manassas, however, there is fun. Well, okay, not exactly unfettered, devil-may-care, truly spontaneous fun. Everything -- except the amazingly precise golf -- is scripted for TV. Asked why they didn't sign autographs while playing practice rounds, the American team members tell reporters they were instructed only to sign after leaving the putting green. Gary Player, captain of the international team, said that the wives of the players were provided with outfits.

In America today, fun is serious business. Walt Disney understood that. Hollywood gets it. So does the PGA. This is the one event that's supposed to be fun.

But, as U.S. golfer Jim Furyk says at one point, "Just because the match is friendly doesn't mean it can't be intense."

On the bucolic fairways, or the traffic-jammed highways, there is no escaping contemporary American intensity. And seriousness. There are plenty of reasons for the somber timbre: holy and unholy wars, climatic cataclysms, boundless poverty, rampant health problems, financial uncertainties. The list is long enough to make you listless.

"The '90s were a blessed time when we didn't seem to be in danger of war or attack," says Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen.

The threats are more prevalent now, she says, and culturally we are responding. Tannen is seeing more plays and books about war.

You can see it in the demeanor of the golfers, too, walking down the course like MIT students pondering an equation. We have become a less carefree species. We are even serious about our humor. At the 2005 conference of the International Society of Humor Studies, held in Ohio, there was a seminar on the ontological semantics of humor.

Ask anybody.

"Gravity is back," says poet Billy Collins. He refers to the New Seriousness as "the big national buzzkill."

The former poet laureate says, "You don't hear of people being paranoid anymore, they're just afraid. Any day now I expect to pick up the paper and read about: pepper -- the silent killer."

Seriousness, he says, is born of insecurity.

People are more insecure, and therefore serious, about exercise and food and jobs and kids' after-school activities and finding their spiritual mojo and enforcing anti-smoking laws and preparing their teens for college.

And that pervasive seriousness is seeping into our play time. There are miniature-golf professionals, yo-yo pros. England defeated the United States in January in tiddlywinks.

Frowns and scowls dominate professional sports from the Presidents Cup to the National Basketball Association, where coaches, temple veins popping, clench their fists at their sides like 11-year-old brats and scream at referees.

Every once in a while, there are exuberant spots in sports -- Joe Gibbs going crazy after the Washington Redskins sneaked up on and whupped the Dallas Cowboys, or the Boston Red Sox raising a World Series banner for the first time in 86 years.

But as a rule, seriousness reigns. Players don't play anymore, they go to work. The fun is gone from fun and games.

"I'm going about business as usual," U.S. team member David Toms says at one point during the Presidents Cup.

Tiger Woods -- like Tim Duncan and David Robinson -- is the most serious of all in his quest for world domination. He hardly acknowledges the crowd, which is trying to be adoring. He has that laser-eyed look, the famous focus that has served him so well. "Some athletes have to be that way," says Patty Barnes, who is just shy of 74, but not too shy. "He keeps his mind on what he's doing."

Barnes, an avowed member of the Tiger Cult from Alexandria, volunteered to help at the Presidents Cup. She paid $250 for a couple of shirts, a cap, a poncho, a jacket and the privilege of helping folks find their way around the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, where the grass is thick and the color of money. Even volunteering is serious business.

Woods is the primo example of seriousness. He sells it. "There are no rainy days," his American Express ad says. His public persona never relaxes. "Tiger seems to have the talent and the desire and the work ethic to do well," Jack Nicklaus told the Times of London recently.

Pro golf has gotten a lot more serious, says amiable American team member Kenny Perry. He's heard stories: Golfers used to hang out together when the day was done. "They partied all the time." Perry says.

When the prize and endorsement money increased, "guys started getting a little more serious, more committed," he says. Now they work out, stay in shape year round, watch what they eat. "There is a lot of money now," he says. "Guys get pretty serious about that."

At the course, the players are constantly practicing, even when they are in head-to-head competition. Because of the nature of the contest, practice putts are allowed, after the fact, and coaching one another is common. Fred Couples works on his putting. Vijay Singh consults with a teammate. Woods doesn't feel like talking to reporters after he and Couples lose to internationals Adam Scott and Retief Goosen on the first day. And when he can, he spends a lot of drudgery time on the driving range, hitting the same shot over and over and over.


U.S. players Jim Furyk, left, and Tiger Woods wear their game faces during the Presidents Cup competition yesterday in Manassas.All aboard: U.S. teammates Stewart Cink, left, and Scott Verplank hitch a ride with several players' wives Thursday at the Presidents Cup.