Presidents Cup organizers are billing this week's event in Virginia as "Unfinished Business," a reference to the dramatic tie in the 2003 event in South Africa. When the event begins today with a starry opening pairing featuring Tiger Woods, 24 players and two captains will be hoping not only for victory but also the kind of theater that will elevate the team match-play competition to the status enjoyed by the Ryder Cup.
With eight of the top 10 players in the world here this week, there will be plenty of talent all over the 7,335-yard, par-72 course, and today's alternate shot competition will open in a big way.
International team captain Gary Player won the coin toss at the start of the afternoon pairings meeting and, instead of deferring his decision until after U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus made his opening choice, announced that South Africa's Retief Goosen and Australia's Adam Scott would play the first match. A surprised Nicklaus responded with the anticipated pairing of his best player, Tiger Woods, with one of his savviest, veteran Fred Couples.
"Gary sort of threw me off base," Nicklaus said. "He came right out with Adam Scott and Retief and said, 'Okay, have at us,' which is fine. We thought maybe that's the team [he] might put out, so we had Tiger and Fred, who we wanted to play there. . . . Gary was hoping for that match, but so were we."
Goosen is a two-time U.S. Open champion, and Scott is ranked No. 7 in the world.
Said Player: "I'm a believer, the first day, if possible, if you can get up on the board and you can create a bit of a shock, I mean you're talking about the best player in the world, Tiger Woods, which we all concede. But if a guy on your team can look up and say, 'Wow, this guy is getting beat; our guys are doing well.' Subconsciously, it can encourage them."
Player also scoffs at any notion of the so-called home-soil advantage the Americans may have. All three American victories in this event have come here at RTJ, the only U.S. course to host the event.
"The soil is the same here as it is back in South Africa or Australia," he said. "All of our guys play on the tour here, so really, they're accustomed to everything."
One thing they will not be accustomed to is playing without South Africa's Ernie Els, No. 4 in the world rankings and a man who has competed in four of the past five Cups. Els had knee surgery last month and is rehabilitating at his home in England. Player said Els had hoped to attend this week but was advised by his doctors not to make the trip.
Els was a hero in the last Cup. Under the captain's agreement in 2003, if the teams were tied following 12 singles matches Sunday, each captain would select one man from his team to go head-to-head in sudden death.
Els and Woods played three holes, halving each one before darkness descended and the two captains agreed to share the Cup for two years. Woods made a tricky 12-footer on the third extra hole, then Els made his five-footer to halve the hole on a putt Nicklaus has often said no one on either team wanted him to miss.
"We obviously have several hurdles to cross," Player said. "Ernie getting injured at a bad time, but we've obviously got to forget about that and now go on to the best of our ability."
There will be no sudden death playoff this year if the teams are tied after all 34 matches; it will be another draw. The only sudden death in the Cup this year will occur only in Sunday singles if a match is tied after 18 holes.
Even without Els, the international team will present a formidable foe with four major championship winners on their side -- Goosen, Vijay Singh, Mike Weir and most recently, U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell, also the winner of the World Match Play Championship last week.
The Americans have seven major champions among their ranks, including this year's Masters and British Open winner Woods, No. 1 in the world rankings, and No. 3 Phil Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship at Baltusrol last month.
Nicklaus and Player said they openly solicited pairing suggestions from their players, and Mickelson said he and Chris DiMarco wanted to play together on opening day. They'll face Presidents Cup rookie Nick O'Hern of Australia and South African Tim Clark, who teamed with Els in 2003 to win two best-ball matches.
Players on both teams offered up theories as to why the United States has been so successful at RTJ, even though most past International players compete on similar style courses on the PGA Tour. This year, nine of the 12 International players play most of their golf in the United States, and many of them live here permanently.
"I think the biggest difference when I played here in 2000 was, and I think Vijay and Retief would agree, we just got out-putted," Weir said. "I think we played just as well as they did; they just seemed to make a lot of putts and we didn't. That happens some weeks. It's such a fine margin. You get a little momentum and make some putts, that tide can turn quick."
American Jim Furyk also admitted that his teammates seem far more relaxed in Presidents Cup play than they do in the Ryder Cup.
"I think everyone would agree we tend to tighten up as a whole during the Ryder Cup," he said. "I think you can just take a look at the guys' faces in the locker room and on the bus on the way out to the course. Everyone just looks a little bit more uptight during Ryder Cup week. We should play in that event . . . and have a little more fun. I think most people when they're enjoying themselves, when they're having a good time, they usually are feeling a little bit more loose and they usually play better."