They got the handshake out of the way on the first tee. Tiger Woods and Steve Williams briefly clasped hands, then went about their business on the first day of the Presidents Cup.
In case you missed it or forgot in the wake of more disturbing sports stories – child sex abuse, the kidnapping of Wilson Ramos, the death of Joe Frazier – Williams made some remarks a few weeks ago at a caddies roast that caused a bit of a stir. He said of the gleeful interview he gave after his new employer Adam Scott won the Bridgestone event shortly after Woods fired him, “I wanted to shove it right up that black asshole.”
It was unclear whether the last word was a characterization or an anatomical reference; most of the attention focused on the next-to-last, which gave the comment a racist tinge to some. Woods, having spent twelve years on the fairways and in workout rooms with Williams, didn’t see it that way; still, tongues were wagging when the two team captains set their pairings to ensure that Woods and Scott would play against each other in the Thursday foursomes down under.
The overblown “grudge match” storyline is in keeping with the less-than-austere atmosphere of the Presidents Cup, which is to its older brother the Ryder Cup what “Survivor: South Pacific” is to “Masterpiece Theater.” It is a frankly made-for-TV event, with an American squad facing a team drawn from the rest of the world except Europe.
Commercial considerations are accepted and embraced at the Presidents Cup. With the matches in Melbourne this year, captain Greg Norman chose two of his fellow Aussies for his optional picks, to join the three who had qualified through regular tournament play. U.S. captain Fred Couples selected Tiger Woods and FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, bypassing PGA Champion Keegan Bradley in a decision that was questionable on golfing form but vastly more desirable in television terms.
Woods did nothing to quiet the skeptics with his play on opening day. Teamed with his partner Steve Stricker, the American pair that went 4-0 against the Internationals in 2009 were five down to Scott and K.J. Choi after just nine holes in the alternate-shot format. The international duo closed out the match on the 12th hole, 7 and 6 (up seven with six to play), equaling the biggest margin in any Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup team match. Woods and Stricker were the only one of the twelve pairs on the course with no birdies.
The 16-hour time difference makes the event a bit of a challenge for U.S. viewers; the live telecasts on Golf Channel run through primetime in the east to finish in the Late Late Show hours. There will be tape-delayed weekend afternoon coverage on NBC as well, and the network deserves credit for recognizing the impossibility of tape-only scheduling in the 21st century.
For golfers who do find the time and attention to watch the matches, the reward is considerable: many of the world’s best golfers doing battle on one of the world’s finest courses, Royal Melbourne. The championship course draws holes from the club’s two eighteens, which were designed by Alister Mackenzie and Alex Russell. It is one of the jewels of Mackenzie’s career, every bit the equal of his legendary American courses Augusta National and Cypress Point.
Royal Melbourne plays as a true links, wide open and firm and fast on the sandy soil found to the south of the city. Its fairways are generous and its greens large and extravagantly contoured; the slopes can feed an approach shot toward the hole or diabolically away. The ball will bounce and roll on reaching the putting surface, so the angle of approach is vital. And the bunkers around those surfaces are cut right into the edges of the greens; with no buffering fringe or rough to stop it, a ball can easily run through the green and into the sand.
The greens themselves are cut and rolled in the morning, the heavy rollers burnishing them to a Stimpmeter speed of 14 – Formula One-level speed. Downhill putts are not so much struck as nudged; give a player a choice and he’d probably prefer a 20-foot uphill putt to a four-footer from above the hole.
The course requires thought and planning and strategy from the first shot to the last. It’s a wonderful venue for championship golf, one that rewards an intelligent golfer rather than merely an athletic one.
Local knowledge is definitely an advantage for the Aussies, and especially for 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Oglivy, a member of Royal Melbourne with a house alongside the course. Oglivy, playing with Masters champ Charl Schwartzel, was deadly with the putter in early going, but American team rookies Bill Haas and Nick Watney – with no experience in either Presidents or Ryder Cups – battled back from two down with four to play to tie the match, giving each side a half-point.
Since the team captains announce their selections for each match openly and in turn – unlike the Ryder Cup, where each session’s players are designated without knowing who their opponents will be — they can create some fun matchups. In the battle of the old fogies, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk won five of six holes in the middle of the match to defeat Retief Goosen and Robert Allenby. And in the all-rookie counterpart, Aussies Aaron Baddeley and Jason Day had a three-up lead after nine, but Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar rallied to win the last two holes and halve the match.
The U.S. team generally struggles in the unfamiliar alternate-shot format, but it got through the first day with a lead, 4 points to 2 All twelve players for each side will be in action again tomorrow, in six four-ball (better ball) matches. Saturday, only ten players for each team will be needed for each of the two sessions. Will Captain Couples have the courage to tell Tiger to take a seat? Stay tuned.