Pardon me for not buying into this foolish notion that the Ryder Cup is the only team competition worthy of our time and attention. Once upon a time, the best golfers in the world were concentrated in the United States and Europe. But part of the joy of sports is in the evolution, even a sport as deeply rooted in tradition as golf.
The Presidents Cup will never catch the Ryder Cup's rich history, but it does offer something the Ryder Cup can't: inclusion. No event that has eight of the top 10 golfers in the world, as the Presidents Cup has, needs to apologize for anything. It would be nine of the top 10 had Ernie Els not injured his knee a couple of months ago. What the Presidents Cup needs -- perhaps all it needs -- is seasoning and time to marinate.
It needs the biggest stars playing well. It needs the young stars challenging the biggest stars. It needs the International team, having never played well in the United States, to seriously challenge the American team. And it needs the benefit of all those subtle story lines that make any sporting competition great, like a recent major champion playing despite ribs so painful he has to be followed around by a physiotherapist all day, like a past champion and crowd favorite pressing to prove he can still keep up with the young guns, like the legendary captains arguing over gamesmanship, like players asking to be paired with specific players and to be sent out first to try and grab the lead and stir up the partisans.
It sounds like quite the wish list, but each of those elements was on display yesterday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, providing just the kind of subplots entering the weekend that might force the purists to shut up and take a look at what is here instead of what isn't.
For those who have tuned out because the U.S. has had such large and insurmountable leads when the competition is here, consider this: The International team, with its 31/2-to-21/2 lead, is ahead at the end of the day for the first time in the United States. The International team grabbed the lead when Retief Goosen and Adam Scott drilled Tiger Woods and Fred Couples, 4 and 3 in the first match of the day. Trevor Immelman and Mike Weir were so on fire in their 6-and-5 victory over Stewart Cink and David Toms that Weir said later, "We got off to a hot start and didn't make any mistakes. I had a good day with the putter. Trevor drove it well and we were never in trouble." And that's an understatement.
Still, yesterday's most notable drama will play right into today. Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, thought he was over a recent injury to his ribs, but re-injured himself on the second swing of the day. "Jim could swing," U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus said, "but not walk."
Sure enough, there was Furyk on the ground, a physiotherapist (whatever that is) tending to his ribs as if he were a tight end who had just been drilled by Sean Taylor. Get this: There are no subs. If Furyk is unable to play tomorrow, then his partner in the best-ball match, Tiger Woods, will have to play a singles match against Stuart Appleby or Mark Hensby, whomever International captain Gary Player designates. This comes after Tiger had asked to play with Furyk. And to heighten the mini-drama, Furyk asked last night to play last so that he could have as much time as possible for treatment.
Perhaps having to rally the boys is just what the U.S. team needs, considering its reputation as selfish and uninterested in team?
"We want to win for each other," Fred Funk said. "I hate reading that we're not a team. Just because we got beat at Ryder Cup doesn't mean we're not a team. But people read into it."
What Nicklaus seems to have that 2004 Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton didn't is a good ear. The U.S. players seem, this year, to be much more proactive in talking up pairings that make sense. Pairing Tiger and Phil Mickelson, as Sutton did last year, made no sense. Pairing Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, who won their match yesterday, 1 up, does. So, Nicklaus has them together again today. "You can see we get along well," Mickelson said, beaming, of his partnership. Likewise, Justin Leonard and Scott Verplank, who won their match 4 and 2, not only asked to be paired together, but they flew to Manassas a few weeks ago to play practice rounds together. This is Funk's point, that not only do these guys care but the proof is in their actions.
Couples cares so much he was publicly critical of himself after his round, which included missing makable putts on Nos. 4 and 6. At one point, Couples said he was "outclassed" by the three men in his grouping: Woods (No. 1 in the world), Goosen (No. 5) and Scott (No. 7). Couples is ranked 20th.
"I held us back," he said. After hitting a couple of errant shots, Couples said, Tiger "basically said, 'Just hit it and we'll go find it. I'll carry us.' "
Couples talked about wanting to be paired with Woods and was clearly agitated with himself. If it was any consolation, Scott and Goosen played so well from the very first hole, it was doubtful any twosome could have beaten them yesterday, which Couples acknowledged.
There was enough good golf played by enough of the world's top players that nobody had time nor interest in following up on the autograph flap that might have come from a smart bit of International gamesmanship. What better way to soften up American crowds (and annoy Nicklaus) than to sign more autographs than the Americans during the midweek practice rounds?
Is that little flap going to give the Presidents Cup the same tension as the Ryder Cup? No. Will that make it as raucous or as contentious as the Ryder Cup? Nope. And it might never reach that boiling point. (The captains declaring a silly tie doesn't help in the drama department.) But it's a dash of spice.
You add that to the suspense over Furyk's status, to Tiger and Couples losing when Tiger's fabulous hole-rattling chip bounced out at No. 15, to the possibility of Tiger playing Vijay Singh on Sunday in singles, and you're starting to build something, and not between also-rans, but among the best players in the whole, wide world.