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Captains Set the Tone for Presidents Cup

by Jeff Skinner

After a weekend full of football and plenty of golf the PGA Tour kicks off its last big event of the season this week as The Presidents Cup starts Thursday at Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco. The Presidents Cup is the much younger cousin of the Ryder Cup and pits players from the USA against a team of International players. For years The Presidents Cup has had a decidedly different tone from The Ryder Cup. It usually has a more relaxed and laid back atmosphere than The Ryder Cup and doesn’t possess the tension and obnoxious nationalism that permeates The Ryder Cup.

Maybe it is because The Presidents Cup hasn’t been around anywhere near as long as the Ryder Cup but I think it has more to do with the tone set by the captains. The past three Cups have been captained by two of the greatest sportsmen in the history of sport. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were their team captains in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and created an atmosphere of friendly competition and mutual sportsmanship. In 2003 with darkness preventing a playoff between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els from continuing the two friends and competitors took the rules upon themselves and decided that both teams would share the Cup. This year’s captains have big shoes to fill.

The 2009 captains have already given this year’s Cup their own individual flavor and the matches haven’t even started. When Fred Couples was first named captain he joked that he may name Robin Williams and Michael Jordan as assistant captains. It turns out he wasn’t kidding. In addition to choosing Jay Haas as his assistant he selected Michael Jordan also. Huh? Michael Jordan? I know that Jay Haas will be able to help Couples with his duties and he will most definitely bring some good vibes as he just won The Seniors Players Championship yesterday. But what will MJ bring to the table? Jordan is a good amateur golfer that loves the game and enjoys playing for a few bucks but how that qualifies him to be part of the team eludes me. Couples may be hoping he brings a little winning attitude with him into the team room. At best he may be a good luck charm and cheerleader, at worst he could just prove to be a distraction.

Greg Norman created no controversy when he named the popular Frank Noblio as his assistant captain and Noblio has taken his selection seriously. It was Norman’s Captains picks that stirred debate. He selected eighteen year old Ryo Ishikawa from Japan and made him the youngest player in Presidents Cup history. With the game exploding in Asia, selecting the hottest and most popular player in Asia for the International Team was an understandable selection. Ryo has four wins in Japan and made a splash with his debut on the PGA Tour this year.

With his other selection, Norman made many heads shake when he went off the board to select Adam Scott. Scott is having an uncharacteristically poor year. His best finish on the PGA Tour was a second place finish in January. Scott’s season included ten missed cuts and six of them in a row. In his last six starts prior to his selection his best outing was a T36 at The US Open. After that he finished T51, T58 and missed three cuts, hardly a record that warranted a captains pick. Scott even went so far as to say he shouldn’t be selected and had knee surgery scheduled. That did not deter Norman from picking him and bypassing players with much better records. Jeev Milka Singh, Shingo Katayama and Rory Sabbatini all had better records and had accumulated more Presidents Cup points than Scott. Norman, who has played the rebel before, picked Scott instead. Norman has been a mentor and role model for Scott and has helped his countrymen over the years. It may be that Norman has chosen friendship over his responsibility as a captain.

It seems that Norman is making headlines for all the wrong reasons lately. He recently had surgery on his right shoulder, but says it will not interfere with his duties. He also announced that he and his wife have separated. It is unfortunate that Norman and his wife, Chris Evert, have parted but if Norman had not made such a spectacle of himself over the past year he would not have needed to. It was said that he announced the separation so there would not be questions about Evert’s absence from this week’s match. If Norman hadn’t carried on and lived such an obnoxiously public life with his wife there would have been no need. Many players go through divorces and difficulties without the public knowing and especially not needing press releases. Norman created his own “publicity monster” when he acted like a teenager, smitten with his first girl at every golf tournament. There were dozens of pictures and video of Norman and Evert hugging and kissing and Norman went so far as to say he might have won more majors if Evert had been in his life sooner. At least we won’t have to deal with all that again this week.

The tone of the captaincy of both teams is already significantly different for both teams. Norman and Couples would do well to follow Jack Nicklaus’ example of what a captain should be. Nicklaus had always said that there wasn’t much a captain could really do and he just put the players out there to play and got out of the way. If the greatest golfer of all time could take a back seat to the players and realize that it is the players that make the match, these captains should certainly do the same.

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