Presidents Cup 2007: Drag Down Match or Pillow Fight?

Montreal, Quebec, June 4, 2007: Rain, as well as maudlin sentiment, were heavy in the air Monday as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player arrived at the Royal Montreal Golf Club to address the media and play nice for the cameras as a warm up for the 2007 Presidents Cup.

This fall two teams of some of the best golfers in the world will join their respective Captains at the oldest golf club in North America but, for this day at least, the tone for the matches was being set by the legendary leaders. Kind words and mutual adoration were in no shortage as the two multiple-time major champions answered questions in a short session.

Unfortunately a scheduled tour of the course with Nicklaus and Player was cancelled due to the weather. It likely would have been the highlight of the day to see the pair survey the layout recently touched up by Rees Jones. Sadly, all that was left was a very commercial presser and a visit obviously intended to appease the many sponsors in attendance for lunch and photos.

In fact, for the most part at least, there was enough back-slapping and smiles to make a few scribes wonder just how determined and entertaining of a battle will take place at the club this September as one of golf’s biggest events unfolds. As the team leaders played nice (Gary even called Jack his “best friend in golf for a long, long time”) it was easy to get the impression that this was nothing more than a exhibition of sorts. The legends even threw in plenty of references to the value of golf to tourism and the cliche, “the spirit of the game” a few times to lull the gathered local media into a fall sense of peace.

Then the reporters started to nudge the Golden Bear and the Black Knight a bit. It finally, and thankfully, stirred up the competitive edge that both have shown during their illustrious careers.

While at first both prefacing the upcoming September duel between Team USA and the Internationals as never intended to be “the war on the shore” and devoid of the disgraceful “kill him” and “I hate them” attitude that surfaced at Ryder Cups prior to 2001, a few questions finally dug up the competitors in Player and Nicklaus.

When Player was asked about the inclusion of the struggling Canadian native Mike Weir as part of his team the reply was chilly at best, just as it has when the same inquiry was made of him at the last Presidents Cup media outing. “Is this a sentimental tournament or is it to try and win?” he shot back at the obviously pro-Canadian reporter. Although Player revealed that Weir is definitely on his watch list – he made his selection process very clear – the best players will make his team and no less than that. A major win is his only automatic criteria for someone to immediately make the team – nationality will play no part. “I cannot put people on the team just for sentiment. We owe it to the public, we owe it to our teams to be as competitive as possible and to try and win the event.”

Nicklaus, looking tired after his big week in Columbus, was not challenged as much, being the “away” Captain on foreign soil, but he was edgy enough as he made a pointed effort to educate some of the non-golf media about how the event works.

As much as the match play spirit appeared alive between the duo the nuances they revealed yesterday revealed some key differences between the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup – setting up matches based on the whims of television and the desires (or reluctance, in Greg Norman’s case one year) of players to face off against certain others. With factors like this you begin to wonder just how carefully orchestrated events are designed to ensure popular and financial success.

Check out this exchange for example:

Q. I was wondering if you could tell us how are you going to prepare the players in the weeks leading up to the tournament?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, we won’t be preparing them the weeks up to the tournament. We won’t be pairing them the weeks up to the tournament. We won’t pair them until they get here because there’s no way in the world that you’re going to have events to do that. And the way I do my pairings, and I don’t know whether Gary does or not, but I do my pairings pretty much by what the fellas like to do.
I look at this as being an event that I want the player to have fun. They don’t get the opportunity to play with some of their best friends as partners during the year because they are playing against them. And so, you know, I’m looking at it as that may not necessarily be the best way to do it but it has to be the best way that I think the guys have more fun and enjoy what they are doing and have a good week. Like we had when I went to South Africa, on the airplane Charles Howell and Tiger came to me and said, “You know, we’d like to play together.” I said fine; so I put them together all four of the matches that they played. Tiger came to me at Washington and said, “Jim Furyk and I have never played together, we would love to play together.” They played together all four matches because that’s what they asked to do. Now if they were unsuccessful the first few matches, I would have had second thoughts. But I want the guys to have fun. I don’t think there’s any big science in it. They are all good players. Compatibility of two fellas getting together is probably the most important thing.
GARY PLAYER: The Ryder Cup is very different than the Presidents Cup whoever we pick. And I do the same thing as what Jack does. You’ve got to — one day Jack picks up first, whereas the Ryder Cup they just put the names in a hat, is that correct? Whereas here with Jack and I, one day he picks and then I put a team against him. The next day, I pick first and he puts a team against me. So I think the strategy of the Presidents Cup is way better because the public would love to see maybe an Ernie Els play a Tiger Woods. But just to put them in a hat, you might find Tiger Woods playing the No. 12 guy on our team, which I know our 12th guy can play, but the public, they want to see those two big giants meet each other; whereas we can actually pretty much go close to arranging that. So a far more exciting more fat in my opinion.
JACK NICKLAUS: Do you understand what Gary is saying there? Do y’all understand? In other words, we alternate days. But he picks a player and then I pick a player; and then I pick a player and he picks a player and he picks a player and I pick.
So if we decide, Gary and I might turnaround and say, like we did in South Africa, that both Tiger and Ernie wanted to play each either, we had to try to figure out how to do that. We didn’t really have to figure out but we both felt like that was probably better for the game of golf and for what was going to happen for the event than it was really worrying about who won. And the two guys wanted to play each other. Oddly enough I had one — before Gary was involved here in Australia, and Greg Norman did not want to play Tiger. And I had heard that. But Tiger told me, when I went into the pairings, he said, “I want to play Norman.”
GARY PLAYER: (Laughing).
JACK NICKLAUS: So my job as captain of the American Team was to get Norman for Tiger. So it got down to the last two — there was two pairings left and Peter Thomson was picking first. So Norman was had; whether he wanted to be or not, because whatever Peter picked, I could match Tiger or back off to the next match.
And Norman said, “Why did you do that to me?” I said, “Hey, you’re not on my team. Greg Norman, you’re a friend of mine, but that’s beside the point.” I said, “Tiger had requested, if I can, to get you, for him. Have a good day.” (Laughter).
GARY PLAYER: And now I might have to do the same thing with Rory Sabbatini and Tiger!

JACK NICKLAUS: That could be arranged, Gary. (Laughter).
GARY PLAYER: Having run the Mafia for 70 years, I’m sure you can. (Laughter).

Will the 2007 Presidents Cup be a dog and pony show (as some have been) or will a golf match (a la DiMarco sinking a meaningful final putt) break out? That remains to be seen. Hopefully, for the sake of true golf fans, it will be the latter.

To see the full and somewhat interesting transcript of yesterday’s news conference have a read at ASAP Sports.

P.S. Even though the big boys didn’t hit the links a few people ventured out. Despite the 2 days of rain the course was almost bone dry and the new green surfaces should cause fits for a few players when they get firm and fast. Watch for the short par four, #14 to be where many matches see a swing in the action. The rough – well it should be real fun and the many bunkers are deep and nasty.