As darkness approached off the South African coast on a splendid November day two years ago, Nick Price was an emotional wreck as he watched his Presidents Cup teammate Ernie Els entrenched in a sudden-death duel with Tiger Woods over three holes to determine a winner in the four-day event.
"It was the first time in my life I could relate to what my mother had always told me about how nervous she felt watching me play when I was growing up," Price recalled in a telephone interview last week. "For the first time in my life, I was nervous for a teammate. I was chewing on my shirt. I was eating grass. . . . The intensity of it was almost too much to bear."
In light so dim American team captain Jack Nicklaus said he couldn't even see the ball from off the green, Woods drilled a 12-footer on the third playoff hole -- "one of the best, if not the best putt I've ever made," he said -- and then watched Els make his own five-footer to keep the teams tied.
At that point, Nicklaus and international team captain Gary Player decided they had seen enough. After conferring with their respective teams, the 2003 Presidents Cup was declared a draw.
The decision was hailed as a gesture of grand sportsmanship throughout the golf world, and the inconclusive result will serve as the backdrop for the sixth renewal of the matches starting Thursday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville.
Nicklaus and Player will return as team captains, with many of the same players from 2003 also on their respective teams, including Woods, the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Els, still recovering from August knee surgery, won't play, but may attend if his doctors allow him to travel.
Nicklaus has since described that 2003 Presidents Cup as "the most fulfilling and enjoyable event I've ever been involved with." Player, a South African native, described it this week as "the most historic thing I've ever seen in my 53 years in golf. There is a new, true democracy there, and after being treated as the polecats of the world for so many years because of apartheid, it was a wonderful thing to see."
Many believe that 17-17 tie in George, South Africa, also may well have elevated the Presidents Cup to a new, more prestigious level on the golf calendar. The PGA Tour runs the event, launching the inaugural Cup in 1994, also at RTJ, where it's been played three times. The two 12-man teams, representing the U.S. against an international side of players not eligible for the European team in the Ryder Cup, compete in a match-play format of two-man and singles matches.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in 1994 the event was started because so many international stars, players such as Price of Zimbabwe, Greg Norman of Australia and Vijay Singh of Fiji, deserved a chance to play in a similar format to the Ryder Cup against the Americans. It also made good sense financially, adding a compelling event to the television schedule at a time of year when golf is usually an afterthought behind college and pro football and the pennant races in Major League Baseball.
Asked at the time about the inevitable comparison with the Ryder Cup, Finchem insisted the two events could stand alone, but that only the passage of time and the chance to develop its own distinct tradition would lift the Presidents Cup into the Ryder Cup's "fifth major" status among the players, the public and the media.
Said Player, "It's an event that will be bigger than the Ryder Cup because it entails the world."
This week, more than 700 media credentials have been issued for the Presidents Cup, compared with 1,000 the PGA of America distributed last September for the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in suburban Detroit. At the last Ryder Cup in Great Britain in 2002, a large number of American newspapers sent their golf writers abroad to cover the event. In South Africa, where the Presidents Cup drew huge domestic coverage, only a handful of U.S. papers were represented, though many more will be here this week.
Still, 10 years and five Presidents Cup later, with the U.S. winning three, losing one and the teams tying two years ago, many players believe the Presidents Cup has narrowed the prestige gap, but that the two events still can not be considered equals.
"There's no doubt [the drama in South Africa] was probably the best thing that could have happened to the Presidents Cup," Woods said. "The two tournaments are totally different atmospheres. When we play the Presidents Cup, it's basically like playing guys we face on the PGA Tour every week. When we play the Europeans, it's different. Maybe half their team plays over [here] and we only see them in major championships, World Golf championships and the Players Championship.
"The international team, we see them week after week out here, so from that aspect there's more camaraderie between the two teams. You certainly don't have the animosity between the fans. When we play in Europe and we play in the States in the Ryder Cup, there's definitely some angst, not necessarily with the players, but certainly in the fans."
'Tough to Compare'
The Ryder Cup began in 1927 as a competition to promote sportsmanship and goodwill between American players and golfers from the British Isles.
Through the first 25 tournaments, not much widespread attention was paid to the matches, mostly dominated by the U.S. side. From 1959 to 1977, the American team won every match, save for a 16-16 tie in 1969. Nicklaus, among others, convinced tournament organizers that expanding the British team to include players from Europe might make the event far more competitive, and in '79 that change was made.
Since 1985, Nicklaus's vision became reality. Europe has won six out of the last 10 Ryder Cups, and tied another in 1989 to retain the Cup it had won in '87. It has also prevailed in four of the last five matches, including the worst drubbing ever inflicted against a U.S. team, the 181/2-to-91/2 pounding at Oakland Hills last September.
"I always said the Ryder Cup wasn't much until we lost it, just like the America's Cup" in yachting, Davis Love III said. "Nobody really cared until we started losing it and then they started saying 'Wait a minute, why can't we win the America's Cup?' I think it's kind of like that with the Presidents Cup. We lost [in Australia in 1998] and then we tied and everybody says, 'Wait a minute, a tie? How does that happen?'
"I think the Presidents Cup is catching up. It's not there yet. I think it's all up to the players, how much importance do we put on it. But you saw a lot of guys this year grinding it out trying to make the team."
Justin Leonard, one of Nicklaus's two captains for the U.S. team this week, has played in both competitions. His 40-foot putt on the 17th hole against Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal clinched the 1999 Ryder Cup for the U.S. at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. It also touched off a controversial celebration on the green, before Olazabal had putted out, that left lingering bad feelings between both sides, perhaps the low point in terms of sportsmanship in the history of that competition.
"It's tough to compare them," Leonard said in Boston last month. "The Ryder Cup has a lot of history on its side, and the Presidents Cup is getting there, heading in the right direction. The Presidents Cup is a great event, but the intensity is not quite there. In my brief experience, once you get on the golf course, the intensity comes alive. But now . . . it's not there yet. It's one of those events where the crowds get into it, and then all of a sudden you get into it. You might enjoy the Presidents Cup a little more because there's not the do-or-die pressure that you feel sometimes."
Closing the Gap
Both team captains have emphasized, as Player said, "to play the matches in the spirit of the game."
"I watched the Ryder Cup for many years," Player said, "but I got disheartened when they said it was 'The War by the Shore' [at Kiawah Island in '91]. Do they know what a war is, compared to a golf match? We don't need all of that flag-waving. These are matches between allies, not enemies. Jack and I have insisted we don't want any nasty talking. Let the clubs talk. If you win, you win, if you lose shake hands, look them in the eye and say, 'Well done.' "
Norman, one of the driving forces in convincing Finchem to launch the Presidents Cup, also believes the event he played in three different times still has a way to go to catch the Ryder Cup.
"I think the Presidents Cup is a wonderful event . . . but I don't think it will ever equal the history and tradition of the Ryder Cup," he said in an e-mail. "There has been so much tradition that passed over the dam with the Ryder Cup for any team event to even think they could draw a parallel. History is hard to trump. I wouldn't mind seeing the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup joined into a truly international competition, but the PGA Tour, which operates the Presidents Cup, would have to concede some control, and I don't think that's likely to happen."
Player likes it just the way it is and said he "strongly disagreed" with Norman's notion of combining the two events.
"It's a terrible idea," he said. "It would not be good because the Ryder Cup is engraved in history.
You don't change the U.S. Open or the British Open. I don't think the pros want that."
Price, Norman's friend and former international teammate, also believes the Presidents Cup can stand on its own and is getting closer all the time to the Ryder Cup. He said another hotly contested four days this week at RTJ will help further close the gap in the public perception of the two events.
"As long as it's close, it will grow and grow in the public's eye," he said. "Golf has become more global, and I can tell you the awareness of it is so much greater in Australia, Japan, Africa. There's as much support for it from the public. In South Africa, it was a huge success.
"It will take time, maybe another 20 years the Presidents Cup will be there. But it's got to be close, backward and forward. I won't be there this week, but I'll be watching on television. I really do hope it's closely contested. Like everyone else, I want to watch great theater, and you certainly got that in South Africa. Just thinking about it gives you chills."
Special correspondent Joe Gordon in Boston contributed to this story.