Presidents Cup eludes controversy, gains respect

Mark Hensby's tee shot on No. 17 wafted way right during Thursday's foursomes at the Robert Trent Jones GC, deep into a forest adjoining the fairway. Upon reaching the general vicinity, Hensby was accompanied by several others, including Tiger Woods, who had just lost his match, then hooked up with teammates for inspirational purposes. Hensby did a double take. There was Woods, peering around trees, and it wasn't even a Buick commercial. "He was helping me look for my ball," said Hensby. "Tiger's on the other team, and he's helping me look for my ball. How classy is that?"

The Presidents Cup is neither the Ryder Cup nor the Nextel Cup, and that should be duly noted by NASCAR wannabes within the PGA Tour, which in 1994 initiated this event between United States golfers and their International brethren. The PGA Tour produced and directed the sixth civil shootout last week, a week when one of those race-car drivers, Robby Gordon, was fined for throwing his helmet at Michael Waltrip, an opposing motorist, during the kind of season-ending, headline-grabbing demolition derby evidently craved by authorities at mission control in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

What's problematic in the PGA Tour's fervor for more exposure is that, on occasion, you wind up like Hensby's ball ... lost in the dark. The message, then, is this: Be careful what you wish for. There's no doubt the PGA Tour will jazz up its regular-season agenda come 2007, when a new calling card -- gentlemen, start your courtesy cars -- will be invoked to get the tour on a faster track. But last week's motif was all about golf essentials that should not be despoiled. Assemble 24 of the world's best players, let a couple Hall of Fame statesmen like captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player handle the details, and you needn't beg for any tricks from other sports or borrow that all-important 15th club in everybody's Ryder Cup bag, the fire extinguisher.

Oh, there were sparks last week. Nicklaus and Player agreed that players wouldn't sign autographs during practice rounds, and when the Internationals developed writers' cramp, the Golden Bear protested that the visitors "made us look like jerks." Then Ian Baker-Finch, Player's peripatetic assistant, was seen dispensing in-round advice to his lads. Jack questioned it, and Gary answered: He'd relinquished that duty, as per the by-laws. American players knew. "So, you're captain today, Finchie?" asked Scott Verplank.

Another minor rhubarb: Davis Love III picked up a ball inches from the hole, misinterpreting Mike Weir's words. On a scale of 1 to 10, these incidents registered a decimal point that, converted to euros, would escalate to 9-1-1.

But the Presidents Cup isn't the Ryder Cup, and two reasons for that are Nicklaus and Player. Dogged competitors in their day, they ooze dignity. Good for Jack, who admonished spectators when they cheered Michael Campbell's missed putt. And good for Gary, who engaged galleries in an impromptu dialogue about fashion after they praised his natty footwear. In golf, where they don't throw helmets, most of the migraines during team events emanate from outside the ropes, anyway. But contestants do establish a mood after taking the temperature of the captains, and theirs are big shoes to fill. The 2007 Presidents Cup will be in Montreal, and former Canadian Open champion Nick Price is the leader in the clubhouse to succeed Player. Excellent choice. Respect will hold serve, even if the home team doesn't.

The home team won last Sunday, 18½-15½, with a singles surge to conclude a superb week of and for golf. Chris DiMarco clinched it alone, after establishing himself as the best partner for Phil Mickelson besides Amy. DiMarco's putt disappeared only moments after Mickelson learned about the peculiarities of Presidents Cup math, as in when a halve is a halve-not.

Mickelson's classic "Whaaat ... ?" on the 18th green, upon being told to report for his first playoff hole, will become part of Lefty lore. He was far from the action when it ended. If they hadn't sent a cart, Mickelson and Angel Cabrera might still be trying to find the halfway house. Jim Furyk was another horse for the Americans, who were aware he came to town already hurting. Verplank also had a mystery ailment, but because it's Verplank, it will stay a mystery.

"Gotta like those two," said Tom Lehman, next year's Ryder Cup captain, scouting Verplank and Justin Leonard. And if Woods disdains group golf, he put on quite the acting job. "People think we're not together," said Fred Funk. "We weren't in our team room five minutes and Tiger was playing Phil in ping-pong."

No, the Presidents Cup isn't the Ryder Cup or the Nextel Cup. It doesn't have a history, but it doesn't have an attitude, either. The Presidents Cup is the tour's baby, and the baby should be allowed to breathe, grow and continue to be fun. Oh, and Phil: You can come in now.

Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.