Golf: Woods happy at `friendlier' atmosphere

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON and Nelson Mandela cannot make it but otherwise all the big names have arrived at Royal Melbourne for the third playing of the President's Cup. The VIP factor may be down, those outside the fairways featuring former US President George Bush, President Sitiveni Rabuka of Fiji, and the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, but two of the greatest names in golf, Jack Nicklaus and Peter Thomson, are heading teams packed with talent.

The three-day match, which features America against an international team drawn from outside the United States and Europe, has attracted hype locally that suggests it is a bigger event than the AFL Grand Final, the Australian Grand Prix and the Boxing Day Ashes Test put together.

What is more certain is that this is the strongest collection of players - 14 of the top 20 in the world - ever to be seen on the same course in Australia. But the Prez Cup, as it has inevitably been nicknamed here, unlike its grandfather the Ryder Cup, has yet to attract the attention of the wider sporting public in America, let alone in the non-participating European countries.

And that is something Tiger Woods, the world No 1, whose only previous experience of such international team competition at the professional level was America's defeat at Valderrama last year, finds comforting. "I can tell already the atmosphere is a little different from the Ryder Cup," Woods said. "To me it is more how it should be. The Ryder Cup is treated by the media like life and death but it should just be a friendly match."

This is not the first time Woods has voiced his concerns about the biggest event in the game and when asked if he was looking forward to next year's match with Europe he replied: "N. C." No comment, presumably.

It is sad that the game's premier player finds so little inspiration in an event that continues to inspire others, through their own determination and desire rather than any outside agency, to performances of the highest quality, an attitude which is often lacking in other showpiece events in other sports.

Woods showed again his genius in practice when he became the first player ever to drive the green at the 354-yard dog-legged opening hole, the ball lipping out as a startled David Duval attempted to putt.

However, both captains have also - and correctly - tried to play down any talk of a "war". "He's playing in the cricket game," said Thomson, to the bemusement of Nicklaus, whose knowledge of either Steve or Mark Waugh is as great as his local geography. "Isn't the Tasman Sea between here and Tasmania?" Nicklaus had queried.

The President's Cup, unlike the Ryder Cup, is set up more for the players, and they will each donate a share of the proceeds to the charity of their choice.

Extended daylight allows for five foursomes and fourballs to be played on each of the first two days, meaning only two players sit out a session from each side, but other modifications have the hint of a "made-for-TV" event.

Each player must play each day while "halved" singles have to go to extra holes until one team is assured of victory.

There can be no such thing as a tie in the overall match; should the score be level at 16-16 after all 32 games have finished, one player from each side will be nominated for a sudden-death play-off. Neither do the captains put in their order in isolation from his opposite number. Instead there is the pantomime of one captain choosing a player or pairing, and the other responding before getting first choice in the next match.

Already the speculation is that Woods will play either Greg Norman, who was determined to recover from shoulder surgery in time for the event, or Nick Price, who beat the American in a play-off at Sun City last week. Another match-up might be Fred Couples against Vijay Singh, the pair who were involved in the crucial game two years ago.

The American holed a 35-footer to clinch a one-point victory but irritated his opponent with a jig across the green into the arms of his team-mates when Singh still had a putt to keep the match alive. "It is going to be as close again," said Steve Elkington, one of four Australians on the international team who know the Royal Melbourne lay-out well. "It will come down to a holed putt or chip. They have a really strong team, but this is the best team we have had and this time we are at home."

INTERNATIONALS: S Appleby (Aus), S Elkington (Aus), E Els (SA), C Franco (Par), S Maruyama (Jap), F Nobilo (NZ), G Norman (Aus), J Ozaki (Jap), C Parry (Aus), N Price (Zim), V Singh (Fij), G Turner (NZ). Non-playing captain: P Thomson (Aus).

AMERICA: M Calcavecchia, F Couples, D Duval, J Furyk, S Hoch, J Huston, L Janzen, J Leonard, D Love, M O'Meara, P Mickelson, T Woods. Non-playing captain: J Nicklaus.