The first Presidents Cup in 1994 came together fast and has since turned into 'a very special thing'
September 29, 2015
By Jim Moriarty, Special to PGATOUR.COM
All human enterprise rattles a bit in the early going. Time is the grease of big ideas. Now safely into its second decade, The Presidents Cup will celebrate its 25th anniversary this week at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia, and if it still doesn’t hum along quite like its antecedent, the Ryder Cup, it’s become an identifiable part of the landscape, something players navigate towards at the beginning of their odd-numbered years. Membership is a prize on the horizon worth pursuing.
The Ryder Cup began as the players’ idea. The Presidents Cup started in an office building. It’s only lasted this long, however, because the players believe. When Commissioner Tim Finchem’s parking space is inevitably painted over at PGA TOUR headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, of all the things he’ll leave behind after 20-plus years, the one with the most lasting impact just might turn out to be The Presidents Cup.
“Commissioners are administrators,” Finchem says. “They manage the situation. I’ll say this though, I put it very high on the list of things I’ve enjoyed working on.”
The impetus for The Presidents Cup came straight from Florida, not South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Korea or Canada. “Greg Norman was No. 1 in the world if I recall correctly,” Finchem saus. “Nick Price was right up there. Ernie Els was on the rise. The Ryder Cup had really started to go at that point. The driving thinking was just, isn’t it too bad that we have so many top players from outside Europe and the United States who don’t get on that stage.”
At the beginning of 1994, Deane Beman was the commissioner and Finchem was the PGA TOUR’s chief operating officer. “We sat down and kicked around the general idea and notion of it,” Finchem says. “We determined that we would give it a shot. We didn’t sort of run around and take a poll.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Norman had the sugarplums of a World Tour dancing in his head at the same time. In fact, he would announce the formation of this ill-fated venture, including the involvement of Rupert Murdoch’s FOX Network, roughly two months after the Internationals lost the inaugural cup to the Americans, 20-12, at the Robert Trent Jones GC in suburban D.C., a competition Norman didn’t participate in because of illness.
Once Beman and Finchem, who would take over as commissioner on June 1, 1994, decided to launch The Presidents Cup, it was thrown together faster than Homer Simpson plows through a bag of donuts.
“From the time we actually pulled the trigger on it until we played it was four months,” Finchem recalls. “It was fast.”
Under the oaks at the Masters, Finchem asked Hale Irwin to captain the American team and followed that with an appeal to David Graham to head the Internationals. One of Irwin’s concerns was the very real possibility he would qualify as a player. “I said I’d love to be the captain but I’d also equally love to be a player,” Irwin remembers. “Can I bring an assistant to help with decisions if I’m playing? We took it to David and he didn’t have a problem. My idea was to get Paul Azinger. He’d been battling cancer and I thought this might be a good way for Paul to get into the game again in some capacity.”
Naturally, a competition needs a venue but this one required a special kind.
“Part of the whole discussion was, to give it a lot of panache, we thought involving the head of state of the home country would be good,” Finchem says. “That meant we were going to try to have the President involved and to make that easy, we looked for a golf course in Washington. We really fell in love with Robert Trent Jones CC. Turned out it worked pretty well. The President, Clinton at the time, invited the teams to come to the White House.”
Meanwhile, Finchem went so far as to join the sitting President for a morning jog early in the week. “The great thing about what he did -- I had met President Clinton back in 1979-80 when I was in my Washington days -- was that he did it right,” Finchem says. “The dinner that he had in the White House was exactly the same as a state dinner. It added from Day One just a luster and feel to what this was. And that’s continued to today. So, when The Presidents Cup went to South Africa in ’03 and Nelson Mandela came and talked to the players, those are the kind of things that, OK, this is a very special thing.”
There were downside risks, not the least of which was that the new competition would be immediately tagged with a Ryder Cup Lite label. “We did know that was going to happen,” says Finchem. “Because there was no history to it, there was kind of, ‘How is this going to work?’ And there was concern about player support. Obviously, you’re talking about top players. It had to have all the best International players. That’s why we were doing it. These guys go different directions so, yeah, that was a concern.”
While all the Americans were on board, some of the International support stayed tied to the docks. Els was the reigning U.S. Open champion and had agreed to play in the Dunhill British Masters the same week, a commitment he didn’t feel he could break. The two top Japanese players, Jumbo Ozaki and Tommy Nakajima, also had tournament conflicts, especially Nakajima who was defending a title.
Most of the behind-the-scenes drama, however, revolved around Norman who was suffering from a gastrointestinal problem that had caused him significant weight loss and eventually prevented him from playing.
In addition to the trappings of a White House dinner, former President Gerald Ford, a friend of Irwin’s, had agreed to be the honorary chairman, while Byron Nelson was the honorary starter.
“Everything was coming together,” Finchem says. “We get out there on the first day of competition and we got a fog delay. We’ve got Byron and President Ford on the tee and we’ve been waiting and waiting. I’ve been telling the media, in golf you have to have history. So, we finally get a tee shot and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got a little history. We’ve got a ball in the air.’ It was great fun.”
Not so much for the Internationals. “We were a little bit like deer in the headlights,” recalls this year’s International captain, Nick Price, of the inaugural matches. “We had no idea what to expect. We’d never been through any Ryder Cup experience. Most of us just knew this was going to be something you wanted to be involved in.”
Irwin, however, had plenty of experience. “I’ll never forget that opening day,” he says. “The first hole was a relatively short hole, a little dogleg left to right. I sent all the guys out who hit the ball the farthest. I want you to set the tone on the first hole and try and drive that green. Be very aggressive. Get out there and stick it. All five of them drove it up there around the green somewhere and we came out of those morning matches 5-0.
“I’ll never forget how my team responded to that challenge. The Internationals got their act together and it became a pretty interesting match afterwards but I’ll never forget that start.”
The outcome wasn’t decided until Sunday’s singles when Fred Couples hit a 9-iron on the 18th hole from a fairway bunker to 18-pre-Shotlink inches, beating a weary Price (who had taken over the world’s No. 1 ranking after winning both the Open Championship and PGA Championship in an exhausting summer), 1 up.
Thanks to U.S. rallies in two late foursome matches on Saturday, the Americans had taken a 12-8 lead into the singles. At the time of Couples’ closeout, however, four matches were in extra holes and, of the two matches behind him, one was even and the Internationals were ahead in the other.
As soon as Couples won, all the matches in extra holes were declared halved, immediately inflating the result. Of course, extra holes in singles, along with the envelope containing the names of two players who would participate in a playoff should the team competition end in a tie, are among The Presidents Cup rules that have been tweaked into oblivion over the years. Just as the Ryder Cup has gone through format changes, The Presidents Cup unsurprisingly has followed suit, including the number of matches for this year’s competition. What hasn’t been tweaked away is the essential purpose of the entire enterprise.
To the extent it has succeeded it has done so despite results as lopsided in America’s favor as the Ryder Cups during the same period have favored the Europeans. “I think there was a lot of skepticism early on as to whether it would survive or not,” Graham says. “I don’t think anybody would have ever project that it’s gained the momentum it has gained.”
The Presidents Cup may have begun in a corner suite but, ultimately, it fails if it doesn’t draw on the same passions that led the tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking British and American professionals of the early 20th century to play friendly matches against one another before Samuel Ryder ever put up a gold cup.
“People think we’re all motivated by self-interest,” Price says. “That it’s all about us. It’s an individual sport. I think the Ryder Cup has shown that’s not the case. We have the opportunity to show the rest of the world that’s not what we play golf for. We play golf to compete.”
It’s not about reinventing the Ryder Cup wheel. It’s about building something, as Finchem says, “that’s pretty cool.”
Presidents Cup Moments: Fred Couples closes it out in 1994