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Two years ago the Presidents Cup was inaugurated, and it was
exciting not for what it provided--the U.S.'s ho-hum 20-12
victory over the International team--but for what it promised.
Sure the format had been lifted from the Ryder Cup (in which the
U.S. competes against Europe) but so had the allure: the thrill
of pitting two teams that included many of the world's finest
golfers against each other.

It still may be Roger Clinton to the Ryder Cup's Bill, but the
Presidents Cup began to fulfill its promise last weekend. Played
over three days at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville,
Va., the Cup matches--20 doubles and 12 singles in which a
12-man U.S. team faced a 12-man team from Australia, Fiji,
Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe--were mostly
stirring, and the theater was consistently good. The outcome
wasn't resolved until the 17th hole of the final match, when
Fred Couples banged in a 25-foot birdie putt to trump Vijay
Singh and give the Americans a 16 1/2-15 1/2 victory. Couples's
putt and the delirious boogie with his teammates that followed
were exactly the kinds of galvanizing highlights the event
needed. (If you missed the putt, don't worry, the replays will
be running for, oh, about two years.) Just as important, the Cup
turned out to be so presidential, what with the rhetoric and the
whiff of scandal.

Actually, it was a welcome change for the golf itself to be
generating the headlines, because in the months leading up to
the event, the focus had been on the impeachment of David
Graham, the former International captain. Graham was replaced on
July 15 after a vote by team members, and the controversy became
a distraction to the International players. When he took over as
Graham's successor, Peter Thomson imposed a gag order on the
International squad to try to cool things off.

It was startling, then, that Thomson roiled the waters with an
ill-advised remark at a press conference last Thursday, the day
before the competition began. Speaking about the Australian
combo of Greg Norman and 25-year-old up-and-comer Robert
Allenby, who would be playing together, Thomson said, "I think
they're invincible, frankly."

Twenty-four hours later, that statement looked as prescient as
DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. U.S. captain Arnold Palmer recited it to
his players as a challenge to their manhood. He tinkered with
his lineup so his most experienced team, Couples and Davis Love
III, would square off against Norman-Allenby in the first
four-ball match on Friday morning. In a spirited competition,
the Yanks came through 2 and 1, with Couples birdieing the last
three holes. That morning the American team was hotter than
Clinton's poll numbers, opening each of the five matches with a
birdie and cruising to a 4-1 lead. "I think Peter Thomson kind
of laid down the gauntlet with that comment," Love said.

Hoping to save face, Thomson rejiggered his lineup to ensure a
rematch of the top twosomes in Friday afternoon's alternate-shot
events. Couples and Love again prevailed, this time one up. The
U.S. team of David Duval and Mark O'Meara also won both of its
matches, and the day ended with the International team playing
Mondale to the U.S.'s Reagan, trailing 7 1/2-2 1/2. That was the
score at the same juncture two years ago--a surprise,
considering how much stronger this International team was than
the original. In '94 Norman (currently the world's No. 1 player)
was sidelined by an intestinal virus, and Ernie Els (No. 3) and
Jumbo Ozaki (No. 6) turned down invitations to play. Over the
next two years Norman and his mates applied considerable peer
pressure to bring Els and Ozaki into the fold. In fact, last
month at the PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, the
Shark jaywalked across two fairways to recruit Ozaki.

At Friday's team dinner Thomson implored his players to keep
hope alive. Other means were also used to boost team morale. "We
were telling dirty jokes, and the beer was flowing," Norman said
on Sunday.

On Saturday morning, in the better ball, Ozaki and Singh
derailed Couples-Love, 2 and 1, as the International team won
three of five matches to close to 9 1/2-5 1/2. In the afternoon
Peter Senior and David Frost, considered the Internationals'
sacrificial lambs, shocked the glittery team of Phil Mickelson
and Corey Pavin 3 and 2, and three straight U.S. defeats
followed. It was left to O'Meara and Scott Hoch to avoid the
sweep, which they did when O'Meara hit a miraculous recovery
shot--fading it, like Clinton's domestic policy, left to
right--into the 18th green for a tap-in par and a one-up victory
over Singh and Steve Elkington. Heading into Sunday's 12 singles
matches, it was 10 1/2-9 1/2, U.S.

An early rout by Craig Parry over Mark Brooks evened the score,
but the U.S. responded with five wins in the next six matches.
The Internationals rallied and again forged a tie when Frank
Nobilo made the last of five straight birdies to polish off Tom
Lehman. With one match left to be decided, the Cup was suddenly
all square.

At that point Couples was 2 up with three holes to play. Then
Singh nearly jarred his eight-iron on the par-3 16th, winning
the hole with a gimme birdie. Couples came to the 17th green
just hoping to two-putt from 25 feet. But "when it got [to
within] four feet," as he said later, "I knew it was going in
the hole. It was a great feeling running to my teammates and
celebrating with them." Pause. "Then I felt like an idiot
because Vijay still had to putt." Singh's 15-foot birdie attempt
hit a spike mark and never scared the hole.

Afterward compliments, not tears, flowed. Said Thomson, "We bow
to a superior team." What ultimately did in the International
squad was its flat play on Friday, which the players blamed
mostly on unfamiliarity with each other and with the team
formats. Said Nobilo, "We don't know whether we should put guys
from the same country together, put the long hitters together,
on down the line."

While team results were paramount, individual reputations were
also at stake. Couples was the hero, but O'Meara got the biggest
boost; he went 5-0 to help offset three mediocre Ryder Cup
appearances. "It's huge, absolutely huge," O'Meara said of the
ramifications of his performance. Duval, playing in his first
international team event, was rock solid. Norman was the most
impressive of the International players, especially in his
brassy 3 and 1 win against Pavin.

Then there was Palmer, who not only melded egos deftly, but as
corny as it sounds, also was a source of inspiration. "We were
all thinking about how A.P. would play out there," said O'Meara.
"Would he hitch up his pants and go forward? You bet he would."

That doesn't sound like a bad course of action for the
Presidents Cup, either. Sooner or later it will have to leave
the snug confines of Virginia and be contested on the home
ground of one of the International team's players. But that will
take time. "Tradition is not generated overnight," said the
International team's Nick Price. "For only the second playing of
this event, this was a very big step forward."

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Only when Couples (left) drained his clinching 25-footer on 17 could Love and the gallery exhale. [Fred Couples and Davis Love III celebrating]