Non-event putts for recognition

LAKE MANASSAS, VA. — LAKE MANASSAS, Va. -- Even before it went from concept to reality, from the drawing board at PGA Tour headquarters to the first tee at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, the Presidents Cup had been viewed by some as strictly an off-year and potentially cheap imitation of golf's marquee match-play event, the Ryder Cup.

But since the event was announced officially earlier this year, something happened to change that perception: the dominance of foreign-born players in general and Nick Price in particular. They have helped turn what had the makings of a non-event into an intriguing showdown between the United States and a team of players from the Southern Hemisphere.


With the absence of Greg Norman, who withdrew Tuesday because of an intestinal flu, Price will become the key figure in this three-day inaugural event, which begins here today and will conclude Sunday. But the reigning British Open and PGA champion doesn't look at the competition as merely being U.S.-versus-me.

"It's a team concept, and one player can only do so much," Price said earlier this week.


But the advantage of having Price could be significant if the competition comes down to the most noticeable difference between the cups: Unlike the Ryder Cup, which can finish in a tie, the Presidents Cup could go to a sudden-death playoff format between a designated player from each team.

The identity of that player wouldn't be divulged unless the 32 matches were split. American captain Hale Irwin, who is also a member of the 12-man team, doesn't know whom he and non-playing co-captain Paul Azinger would choose in that situation. David Graham, the International team's non-playing captain, won't say whether Price definitely would get the call.

"If he doesn't," Irwin said, "he's crazy."

Price, a 37-year-old from Zimbabwe, has replaced Norman as the event's top attraction. It's only fitting, since he recently replaced his close friend and soon-to-be Florida neighbor as both the No. 1 player in the Sony world rankings and the top money winner on this year's PGA Tour.

But Price is right: He only can be directly responsible for one point in Sunday's 12 head-to-head singles matches, and partially responsible for four other points in the 20 other four-ball and foursome competitions today and tomorrow.

So, as is often the case in the Ryder Cup, it will come down to depth. The U.S. team has more recognizable names and faces to the American audience, and its collective experience in high-pressure match play is certainly more than that of the International contingent.

While the U.S. team will feature players such as former Masters champion Fred Couples, left-handed phenom Phil Mickelson and Corey Pavin, the International team has Price and a bunch of solid PGA Tour and European Tour players such as David Frost, Mark McNulty and Vijay Singh. U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa and Japan's Jumbo Ozaki are not here because of prior commitments.

"They have guys with Ryder Cup experience, and we don't," said Price, who like the others from the Southern Hemisphere, has been ineligible to play in the biennial event between the United States and Europe. "I think that could come into play, especially if it's close on Sunday."


Said Irwin, one of five Americans here to have played in previous Ryder Cups, "A lot of people aren't familiar with some of their guys, but we are. Take a guy like Bradley Hughes [Norman's replacement]. He's a good player. And he might actually be a little longer than Greg."

The loss of Norman might not only hurt the International team's chances, but the event's visibility. While a runaway victory by the Americans could help recoup some pride lost by this year's first-ever sweep of golf's major tournaments by foreign-born players, it could wind up making the Presidents Cup as obscure as the Ryder Cup was until the past decade.

"It's a shame to go drawing comparisons with the Ryder Cup," said Azinger, who, because of Irwin's involvement as a player, will wind up making many of the decisions regarding the pairings. "This is a great event in its own right. It's not a Ryder Cup copycat."


Where: Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Lake Manassas, Va.

When: Today through Sunday.


Competition: Two 12-man teams, one representing the United States and one an International side made up of players from countries not eligible for the Ryder Cup.

Format: This morning and tomorrow morning, five four-ball (better-ball) matches; this afternoon and tomorrow afternoon, five foursomes (each side plays one ball, alternate shot). One point for each match. Sunday, 12 singles, each played to a conclusion. In the event of a tie, one player from each side will play sudden-death.

TV: Today, ESPN 8 a.m.-noon; 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Tomorrow-Sunday, CBS (Channel 9). No Baltimore TV.

Tickets: Not available.

This morning's pairings: 7:50 a.m. -- Steve Elkington-Vijay Singh (I) vs. Corey Pavin-Jeff Maggert; 8:00 -- Fulton Allem-David Frost (I) vs. Jay Haas-Scott Hoch; 8:10 -- Nick Price-Bradley Hughes (I) vs. Davis Love III-Fred Couples; 8:20 -- Craig Parry-Robert Allenby (I) vs. John Huston-Jim Gallagher Jr.; 8:30 -- Frank Nobilo-Peter Senior (I) vs. Tom Lehman-Phil Mickelson. Tsukasa Watanabe and Mark McNulty will sit out for the International team; Hale Irwin and Loren Roberts will sit out for the U.S. team.