GAINESVILLE, Va. - The Presidents Cup came of age two years ago on the far side of the world.
The transformation took place on a South African Sunday - tape delayed in America. It matured in the hours before Tiger Woods and Ernie Els left undecided the outcome in a gut-wrenching sudden-death playoff that helped breathe life into the fledgling international team event.
The Presidents Cup showed its true heart at the end of a singles match between American Kenny Perry and Zimbabwean Nick Price. It emerged when the infallibly sportsmanlike Price reflexively snapped his club after the decisive putt slid past the cup. He sheepishly tucked the broken weapon under his arm as he reached to shake Perry's hand.
Perry was moved to tears after twice blowing three-hole leads only to win his first international singles match 1-up.
"He kind of had an accident with his putter over the knee there," Perry said. "He told me he didn't mean to do that. It was just the emotion of the moment."
Emotion was the one thing the Presidents Cup has too often lacked in its history that goes all the way back to when Adam Scott was 14. Too often it was a blowout. Occasionally, the Americans' hearts were admittedly not in it.
Now the Presidents Cup returns to the states with a little momentum. The 12-man American and International teams gathered at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club include nine of the top 11, 14 of the top 20 and 20 of the top 30 players in the world rankings - and that's only because world No. 4 Ernie Els is at home recovering from knee surgery.
It's an all-star collection that puts the usual Ryder Cup matchup with Europe to shame - on paper. Only the heart was missing until 2003.
"I've said numerous occasions, I think that the potential of the Presidents Cup to be greater than the Ryder Cup is there, simply because the scope is larger," U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus. said "I think there are probably more good players, as it relates to world rankings, than probably if you played the Ryder Cup. I think the Presidents Cup has come of age."
In order to keep growing, the Presidents Cup needs to continue to be as hotly competitive as the 17-17 tie on the Links at Fancourt. It needs more moments of snapped and frayed emotions. It needs more instances of choked chances such as Davis Love III duffing a chip to spoil the U.S. victory.
Price, who didn't make this year's International team for the first time in the event's 11-year history, displayed the drama that this type of team competition can invoke.
"That's the type of guy you want on your team," Australian Stuart Appleby said. "He was emotional. He apologized for his putting break, but it was just a thing that he wanted it so bad. He wasn't sulking about it; he just let it out. That's what this tournament can get you to."
This tournament prompted Phil Mickelson to go 0-5 last time out. It has led world No. 1 Tiger Woods to an incongruous 0-6 mark in four-ball competition. It prompted sweat and nerves unlike anything the global golf community had ever experienced until a format was introduced in 1994 to include them.
"For the first time in my life, I was nervous for a teammate," Price told the Washington Post about watching the playoff between Woods and Els. "I was chewing on my shirt. I was eating grass. ... The intensity of it was almost too much to bear."
That's what the two teams hope to produce this week on a course where the Internationals have gone 0-3. Before the epic conclusion in 2003, the only drama this event ever generated was Fred Couples' clinching 60-foot putt on the final hole in 1996 to defeat Vijay Singh.
"When we started losing and getting it rubbed in for two years, it certainly gets a lot more intense," said Love, who along with Mickelson and Singh has played in every Presidents Cup event staged. "We beat them so bad here the last time, they wanted to beat us bad in South Africa. And it was a close match."
The inevitable comparisons to the Ryder Cup wear thin because of the respective history and the noticeable unity of the European team. But the players insist the competitiveness of this event - which always seems so evenly matched in theory - will establish its niche in due time.
"As an event it's probably not as evolved as the Ryder Cup," Appleby said. "It's evolution and growth process is still going along very strong. I think the Ryder Cup has certainly leveled out. We've got a lot of growing ... but 50 years from now it will be very much the same in a historical sense as what the Ryder Cup has been to the Europeans and to the Americans."
In the short run its certainly different. The galleries don't tend to chant and the players are generally friends who share the same tour and lifestyle.
The Presidents Cup took its biggest step two years ago. What happens in the next four days on American soil might have a dramatic effect on its evolution.
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