By Jeffrey A. Rendall
I knew when I went to the President's Cup that it would be unlike any golf event I've ever attended. I knew it would even contrast regular PGA tour events, such as the Michelob Championship. But it was more than the unique tournament format that highlighted the main difference -- it was the higher stakes involved. World golf reputation and pride was on the line for both sides -- arguably more valuable than a winner's check.
For four days the world, sans Europe, turned its golfing focus on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Lake Manassas, Virginia. The United States put its 12 best players against the world's 12 best. The winners took home the President's Cup, and pride.
Lake Manassas is about a half-hour from downtown Washington, D.C., and is part of Prince William County. Despite the event's international presence and attention, the tournament still contained a good dose of local Virginia flavor to it. The Prince William County folks did an excellent job of promoting how great golf in the state already is -- and how good it can be. And although the everyday player can't just walk on and play RTJ, there's only a lake separating you from a great place you CAN play (Virginia Oaks). And another fine public track, Bull Run Country Club, is just up the road about 10 minutes away.
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Club is the legendary architect's only work that bears his name. The course itself is a summation of all the golf course design elements that Jones admired -- long and difficult holes, risk/rewards, lots of water, and bunkering to test the best in golf. Each hole is different and memorable. The clubhouse is world-class. The grounds are impeccable. The scenery is breathtaking.
You run out of superlatives before you run out of subjects. I almost felt guilty walking the grounds -- lest I trample on some of the beautiful groundskeeping. I've seen greens that were cut longer than the fairways at RTJ -- and they were soft and spongy, almost like astroturf. But it was no carpet -- the pros made real divots. I admire professional golfers for more than just their beautiful swings -- they get to play on these magnificent courses, too.
In other words, there was a lot to appreciate with the President's Cup. You can turn to any number of golf publications to find the details of the United States' smashing victory; alternatively, I'd like to provide some insights into the tournament and players themselves. Just as I did with my Michelob Championship article, I'll lend you some of my observations for the two days.
There were numerous times when the caddies would 'instruct' the crowd on how to behave while the players remained stoic and focussed. A good example was the eighth hole during Saturday's Four Ball Rounds. Tiger Woods hit his drive into the right rough. The crowd (including myself) rushed to gather around the ball, leaving just enough of a path for the legend to hit his ball through.
Tiger's caddy immediately began eliminating potential distractions. He lectured a woman with a camera on how they're not allowed except for members of the media -- and she wasn't even taking pictures with it! He also sternly warned a group of kids to remain still while Tiger sized up the shot and then proceeded to pound the ball through a tiny opening in the tree line towards the green. Other players' caddies performed similar 'enforcer' roles.
Tiger's demeanor itself was noteworthy. For those who have been to the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National cemetery, you'll know exactly what I mean. Like the soldiers of the guard, Tiger was almost trancelike as he examined the situation, chose a path to shoot through, and executed the shot. Not once did he even flinch from the hundred or so people located just an arm's length away. Even his movements seemed practiced and controlled. It's easy to see how he's able to perform so well under intense pressure -- it's almost as if he's got full body control as well as mind control. Impressive.
If it wasn't clear before, it's clear now. Most of the folks who follow Tiger on his trip around the links are there to watch him, not how he performs. Tiger is undisputedly the best player in the world, but even he makes some mistakes. On the 12th hole on Saturday, Woods hit his drive into the hazard on the right side (I'm pretty sure he had to drop, but not 100%). When he hit the shot, fans strained their vocal chords to shout 'You Da Man' and 'Go get 'em Tiger!' before they even saw where the shot went. In fairness, the gallery's reaction would be typical of most players they observed. But Tiger's galleries want to see him do something spectacular -- and his mere striking of a golf ball meets most of their standards for incredulity.
How many times have you hit a poor shot, followed the path of the ball and garnered a 'pretty good idea' of where it ended up -- only to arrive at the spot and it's nowhere to be found? Pros have it much easier. Every one of their shots is immediately located by course officials. It leaves much more time for them to assess what they need to do on their next try. The rest of us not only have to frantically locate the ball (or face its loss along with a penalty), but we must keep in mind the group behind us and pace of play. I think tournament conditions are worth several strokes every round for the top players. That being said, I'd still take them in a bet over myself any day of the week!
One aspect of professional golf that I was particularly impressed with was the pros' pre-shot routines. Each has one, and they're as different as their individual swings. Greg Norman would look to find the correct line, place the club in back of the ball, then assume his stance and check his grip. It was very methodical, yet took little time. A small playing lesson we all should keep in mind, rather than ripping a club from the bag, hurrying to the ball and swiping at it with nary a thought to interrupt our hacking.
It's a general theory of mine that just about anyone can hit a shot from 125 yards and in. Some players may only get one or two good ones a round, but at least there's a smidgen of saving grace in that. But to be able to execute long iron play consistently is something that few non-pros can do.
I stood at the midpoint of the par five 14th hole Sunday, watching the players go at the green in two -- hitting over a pond front and left, and a group of bunkers guarding the right side. Player after player struck solid long irons or 3 woods -- without coming up short -- and held the green. Vijay Singh's was particularly impressive -- hitting a three wood from a fairway bunker to within 10 feet.
I will note that two players found the water -- Ernie Els and Steve Elkington. Els hit his drive in the deep rough and his second was a low liner that just caught the hazard. Elkington had no excuses -- he shanked a long iron into the pond. Clearly a mishit.
But I don't think it shoots my overall theory ... I guess my experiences at the President's Cup shows that even pros are human. Or at least some of them are.
Final Score: United States 21.5, Internationals 10.5.
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