Because every aspect of the Presidents Cup tries to be a classy and refined but less stressful version of the Ryder Cup, there is a tendency to deny the obvious plot line that runs through this event. But why avoid it? The U.S. team, after losing the past two Ryder Cups by a stunning combined score of 34-22 and merely getting a tie in the last Presidents Cup, desperately needs to regain some of the worldwide stature it has squandered in recent years.
If you can't beat Europe and you can't beat the Best-of-the-Rest, what's left? A mixed scramble against Tibet? The United States has not won a Ryder or Presidents Cup since 2000 and has only one Ryder win since '93. While it's important to be sportsmanlike hosts, it's also time for Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and a team with 11 of 12 players ranked in the top 25 in the world to give somebody a Sunday spanking in one of these world-status exhibitions. The paper tigers need a win on grass.
In particular, the U.S. team, which enters today's final 12 singles matches in an 11-11 tie with the Internationals, needs to start erasing the memory of embarrassing itself last year in the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, where a European team with indisputably inferior talent routed the fussing, confused and sulking U.S. squad, 181/2-91/2. The Presidents Cup team has nine of the 12 men from that Ryder Cup, including the main culprits from that squashing on home soil: Jim Furyk (1-4), Mickelson (1-3), Woods (2-3), Fred Funk (0-3) and Davis Love III (2-3). This is their chance to regain bragging rights against a truly elite International team on the home turf of Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.
"It's really important that they win this week. It's big for the American guys," said Tom Lehman, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain in '06. "The best of all possible worlds would be to win this week and go beat the Europeans in the Ryder Cup" in 2006.
So there you have it: orders from headquarters. If not here and now, with Ernie Els of the International team injured and Jack Nicklaus serving as U.S. team captain, then when and where? If nothing else, the U.S. team should benefit from having Nicklaus, not (shudder) Hal Sutton, as strategist. You haven't seen Tiger and Phil paired together this week, have you? Or seen Mickelson benched? Perhaps as a result, they're both playing better.
Yesterday, the Americans laid the groundwork for a Sunday assault. Entering the day trailing by a point, the U.S. team won the morning foursomes matches (alternate shot), 3-2, then split the afternoon four-ball matches, 21/2- 21/2. However, from a team psychology point of view, the concluding image from the last stroke of the day's final match could be unsettling. Fred Couples, often a Presidents Cup star, had an eight-foot birdie putt on the 18th green for an outright win that would have given the United States a one-point lead. He missed, failing to send a message. Or, perhaps, reiterating an old one.
Nonetheless, the U.S. team has escaped the two-man portion of the competition, which has often been its undoing. This time, the Americans have "played well with others," especially the teams of Mickelson with Chris DiMarco and fellow Texans Justin Leonard and Scott Verplank (2-1-1). Woods lost his first match when paired with Couples, so Nicklaus immediately switched the world's No. 1 into a tandem with Furyk. Together, they went 2-0-1.
Over the past three days, the U.S. team appears to have made dramatic progress with compatible pairings, rather than the kind of team chilliness or controversy that has contributed to losses in four of the last five Ryder Cups. Yesterday's play even provided the inspiring sight of Furyk carrying Woods on his back much of the day. "Jim was unbelievable," said Woods. After Tiger birdied the first hole in an afternoon four-ball match against Vijay Singh and Stuart Appleby, Furyk made the team's next seven birdies to keep their tense match all square until, as if on cue, Woods birdied the 16th hole to put the pairing ahead to stay.
"It would have been nice if we would have had the opportunity" to play together in the past, said Woods, who has had 14 different partners in past Presidents and Ryder Cup play. "Most of the time, guys are paired up with players that have similar games. Obviously Jim and I play golf differently. But I think the most important thing is the way we approach the game. Our attitudes are very similar -- the way we compete."
If both Woods and Mickelson have now found partners who are matches in temperament, then future U.S. teams may fare far better. Woods needed the fiery, cocky Furyk, who makes up in grit what he lacks in swing mechanics. Mickelson and DiMarco simply like each other and enjoy playing together.
"You've seen lots of unbelievable golf shots this week," said DiMarco, proud that, so far, the U.S. team has played exceptionally.
Today's matches offer a perfect opportunity because the International team is, on paper, far better than the current European crew. The Internationals have tons of talent -- 10 of their 12 players ranked in the top 33 in the world. If Els, ranked No. 4, had not missed these matches because of knee surgery last month, the Internationals might actually have had the edge in charisma here, led by Vijay Singh (No. 2), Retief Goosen (No. 5) and Adam Scott (No. 7).
Handicapping this final day should be a golf fan's delight. The United States caught a break in Els's absence and has survived the two-man-team days it feared. Now, at least in theory, the United States should have an edge in depth of talent, as well as a distinct "home-field" advantage at RTJ, a majestic, 7,335-yard course that has matured into a layout with a major tournament feel.
However, the Americans have ghosts to slay, whether they like to acknowledge it or not.
"It's going to be a coin toss," Mickelson said.
For the U.S. team, it's time that one of 'em came up heads.