LAKE MANASSAS, Va. -- The outcome in the inaugural Presidents Cup hardly seemed in doubt yesterday afternoon at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. The relatively close competition going into the head-to-head matches was quickly becoming a rout for the United States.
Then things got interesting.
The International team kept hanging on.
The American team kept missing chances.
"In head-to-head competition, sometimes the hardest thing is to get over the hump, to nail it down," U.S. team captain Hale Irwin said. "We got to 16 points pretty easily, but we had a [difficult] time getting it to 17."
After four matches went to sudden death and three others were heading in that direction and after no fewer than three victory-clinching putts by the U.S. team stayed out, the Americans finally began their much-delayed celebration.
It came after Fred Couples beat Nick Price, 2 and 1, to give the United States that elusive 17th point in what would become a deceptively close 20-12 victory. It came after Couples capped a tremendous comeback with a marvelous recovery from a bunker on the 18th fairway. It came after Couples' approach from 147 yards stopped two feet from the hole and Price, who conceded the birdie putt, narrowly missed forcing another playoff when his 25-foot chip almost went in.
"When it started coming down, I knew it was going to be pretty close after seeing Phil's shot the other day," Couples said, referring to Mickelson, who holed out a 95-foot wedge shot Friday. "I saw Jay [Haas] run over to the green to see how close it was. I'm standing around thinking it was over, and Nick nearly holed out. But it wasn't the hardest shot in the world to hit," said Couples, who won his third straight match despite being down three holes at the turn.
Irwin said: "Fred wasn't feeling well all week because of his back. He was supposed to be the one guy for us who was suspect. But you saw what kind of champion he was. That's the stuff scriptwriters dream of."
It was the kind of shot, and ending, that gave the Presidents Cup its first lasting memory. While the final result suggests rout, those who followed the event from its foggy start Friday to yesterday's finish will suggest otherwise.
"I'm so excited it was close," said David Graham, the International captain. "It's what we wanted and what the tournament wanted."
The U.S. team won all five four-ball matches in the opening morning session and the first two alternate-shot matches that afternoon. The International team came within a point despite Price, the world's No. 1 player, not winning a match and Greg Norman, ranked No. 2, pulling out earlier in the week with the flu.
"If we had Greg and Ernie [Els of South Africa, the reigning U.S. Open champion] it could have easily meant a swing of four points, and that changes the whole thing," said Price, who earned just one point in four matches.
Norman showed up yesterday, noticeably thinner and obviously a bit too late to help his teammates. It appeared as if the International team was going to make a fast exit after Irwin, Haas and Jim Gallagher won their matches. When Jeff Maggert secured the 16th point by beating Norman's replacement, Bradley Hughes, 2 and 1, the end seemed imminent.
But weird things started to happen. Scott Hoch, two holes up with three to play, suddenly found himself in a playoff with David Frost. Despite being two holes up through 11, then playing the last six holes in 3-under par, Tom Lehman needed a 30-footer for par at 18 to force a playoff with Vijay Singh. Mickelson barely missed a 10-foot birdie at 18 to beat Fulton Allem, then badly missed another opportunity in sudden death.
"I knew in the Ryder Cup format, because of the ties, it would have been over and we would have won, but I didn't know what was going on with these playoffs," said Davis Love III, who was in the middle of a tight match with Steve Elkington that he would eventually win, 1-up, giving him a 4-0-1 record.
"When I got to the 12th hole, I thought it was going to be over boom-boom-boom."
) Until Boom-Boom ended it.
Jay Haas, U.S., defeated Mark McNulty, Zimbabwe, 4 and 3. Jim Gallagher, U.S., defeated Tsukasa Watanabe, Japan, 4 and 3. Hale Irwin, U.S., defeated Robert Allenby, Australia, 1-up. Peter Senior, Australia, defeated John Huston, U.S., 3 and 2. Jeff Maggert, U.S., defeated Bradley Hughes, Australia, 2 and 1.
Fred Couples, U.S., defeated Nick Price, Zimbabwe, 1-up. Phil Mickelson, U.S., and Fulton Allem, South Africa, halved. Tom Lehman, U.S., and Vijay Singh, Fiji, halved. Scott Hoch, U.S., and David Frost, South Africa, halved. Loren Roberts, U.S., and Frank Nobilo, New Zealand, halved. Davis Love III, U.S., defeated Steve Elkington, Australia, 1-up. Craig Parry, Australia, defeated Corey Pavin, U.S., 1-up.
Score: United States 8, International 4. Match Score: United States 20, International 12.
Note: None of the four matches that went to sudden death were finished by the time the U.S. clinched the victory, so each team was awarded an additional half-point for each match.