At the end of yesterday's first Presidents Cup news conference of the week, U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus looked at his international team counterpart, Gary Player, smiled and said, "Okay, laddie, what do we do the rest of the day?"
Both men -- longtime competitors, multiple major champions and genuine friends -- will have plenty to do this week as they prepare their 12-man teams for four days of match-play competition at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville beginning tomorrow afternoon.
Team captains in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup have myriad responsibilities, not the least of which involves devising the two-player pairings for foursomes and four-ball competitions. And unlike the blind draw of the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup forces captains to take turns choosing who will play whom, adding another component of strategic matchmaking.
The captain also must be part cheerleader, social secretary, fashion coordinator, psychologist and chief spokesman. And of course, fairly or unfairly, he also must accept the inevitable fact that the winning team's captain will be lionized while the losing captain likely will be derided.
"I know you go to a lot of meetings," Player, 69, said in an interview last week. "There's an awful lot to it. I've been constantly on the phone with our liaison on the PGA Tour about the color of the clothes, what outfits the wives will get, the caddies, scheduling practice matches. . . . It just goes on and on, but I like it very much. It gives me an opportunity to get to know some of these young guys."
Said Nicklaus: "Our main role is guidance. Gary and I have been through a lot and these players have, too. To have a group of young men representing their country, they sometimes say, 'You know, Captain, how do you want us to handle this' or 'I've got this issue here; what do you think we ought to do?'
"It's being a role model in many ways to our players and help the players be a role model to whoever is watching the event."
Nicklaus, 65, captained the only U.S. Presidents Cup team to lose this competition, by a stunning 201/2 to 111/2 margin at Royal Melbourne in Australia in 1998. But he said yesterday that his current team, with six of the same players, has a far different outlook.
"The guys told me afterwards [in '98] that 'We were there, but we really didn't want to be there,' " he said yesterday. "I think all of the guys wanted to be there in 2003, and I've found it great this year that the fellas have all come to me all year long and said 'Boy, I want to make the team, I want to be there, I want to play.' I think it's helped the Presidents Cup. I think it's helped the morale of the team. I'm sure the international team has been much the same way."
The same two captains were at the helm for the last Presidents Cup in South Africa in 2003, when the teams were tied at 17 after 12 singles matches and three sudden death holes between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. Both captains said yesterday they never wanted the matches to go overtime, that both teams deserved to win and that their decision to call it a draw was the best possible outcome.
"I think if either one of the fellas [Woods and Els] had won that, we would have felt bad for the other team," Nicklaus said. "Sure we would have been happy on our team and happy to have won . . . but the way it ended, I don't think anyone felt badly about the decision."
At the moment, both captains and their assistants -- Jeff Sluman for the U.S. team, Ian Baker-Finch for the international team -- are still tinkering with the combinations of players they'll send out in the opening round of six foursomes matches, also known as alternate shot. Those decisions will be made after watching two practice rounds and listening to suggestions from team members. At his opening team meeting Monday night, Nicklaus asked everyone who they wanted to play with, and who they didn't want to play with.
"They all wrote down Tiger" Woods, Nicklaus said of the want-to list, adding that "I asked Tiger and he put down a smiling face. I read where he'd like to play with Fred [Couples] or Jim Furyk, but he said 'I don't really care.' . . . And not a single player wrote down who they don't want to play with."
The American players say they care deeply about winning the Cup for Nicklaus, who has had an emotional year that began with the drowning death of a grandchild and also included what he has said was his final appearance in a major championship at the British Open in St. Andrews in July.
"You're playing for your teammates and your captain," Woods said yesterday. "With Jack being the legend that he is and obviously retiring competitively from the game, it just makes it that much more enjoyable to come out here and play. We did the same thing with Ken Venturi [the 2000 U.S. captain] and just had ourselves a blast."
The international players also revere Player, one of the game's great ambassadors.
"The first time I met him was at our meeting at the British Open," said Australian Nick O'Hern, playing in his first Presidents Cup. "His determination is unbelievable, and his enthusiasm is the same. As a player, you have to feed off that."
Nicklaus and Player's friendship, spanning close to 50 years, also serves as a heartwarming backdrop to the sixth Presidents Cup. Nicklaus even named one of his sons after the South African, and the two have played countless rounds together, professionally and socially.
At the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive in St. Louis, Nicklaus came to Player's defense when anti-apartheid protesters heckled him during a round, saying at the time that he was amazed at how Player was able to compete "under greater psychological duress than any other athlete I could think of." Player, who also opposed apartheid, went on to win that Open title.
The following year, at a time when Nicklaus was struggling with a bit of burnout, Player and his wife, Vivienne, invited Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, to spend some time with them on their ranch in South Africa. The couples went sightseeing, and the two men played a little golf, did some hunting and fishing. Nicklaus returned refreshed enough to win his second straight Masters two months later.
Now they're together again in Northern Virginia this week, hoping their teams can duplicate the same sort of riveting event that marked the last Presidents Cup in South Africa.
"Obviously we'd love to win and I'm sure Gary's team would love to win," Nicklaus said. "But I don't think that's the important thing. We want to play as hard as we possibly can. We want them to enjoy the competition and we want to develop a stronger bond and relationship between the players of the international and U.S. teams and promote the game around the world. That's what it's all about."