'We creamed them'
Inside the International Team's dominating win at the 1998 Presidents Cup
December 06, 2019
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- The International Team won their first Presidents Cup by a margin of 20½–11½ at Royal Melbourne. (Craig Jones/AllSport)
Admittedly, the scope of the event was beyond anything he had experienced. But it wasn’t until Greg Turner walked to the first tee for the opening match of the 1998 Presidents Cup in Melbourne that he understood just how different it all was.
“From the clubhouse to the first tee, it was a long walk and here we were a pair of Kiwis marching through a throng of screaming Aussies. It was a maelstrom,” said Turner, side-by-side with countryman Frank Nobilo. “Kiwis hadn’t had that much support from Aussies since Gallipoli.”
Aussies and Kiwis? Together with South Africans? For a common cause? Seriously?
“We’re rugby countries,” Nobilo said. “It’s combative between us.”
But in December of 1998, it was Three Musketeers-like, that “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” stuff which worked rather nicely. Indeed, if this year’s International Team needs inspiration for the upcoming task at hand against the heavily favored Americans at Royal Melbourne, players need only refer to what happened 21 years ago. In fact, perhaps this year’s International Team captain, Ernie Els, can regale them, for a little more than a year after winning a second U.S. Open, the 29-year-old South African in 1998 was a key component in a stunning performance.
That year, the Presidents Cup was played outside the United States for the first time – and oh, how it traveled, all the way Down Under to Royal Melbourne. The majestic links in the famed Sandbelt region had been flavored by few Americans, but Els & Co. knew it well.
“Like the back of my hand,” said Australia’s Craig Parry. He was then 32 “and I had first seen Royal Melbourne when I was 5. I loved everything about it and felt it was a great place for us.”
Exactly how great could never have been envisioned, but Els, who went 3-1-1, would confirm that 21 years later, the International Team’s lone win in 12 editions of the Presidents Cup still ignites an infinite measure of respect.Ernie Els defeated Davis Love III 1-up in Sunday's singles matches. (Nick Wilson/Allsport)
“I have a photo of our winning team, smiling and celebrating. It’s up in the bar of my house,” said Parry, the enthusiasm in his voice unmistakable. “One of the best memories of my life.”
What often reverberates when the 1998 Presidents Cup is brought up is not praise for the late Peter Thomson’s captaincy or the brilliant play of a rookie from Japan, Shigeki Maruyama, or the dynamic Australian tandem of Greg Norman and Steve Elkington. No, you often get dismissals because the Americans had to travel just before Christmas (the competition was held Dec. 11-13) and it was their off-season, so most of the team was rusty.
In fact, Tiger Woods, who went 2-3 that week as the No. 1 player in the world, will be playing captain this time around and told his team he doesn’t want a repeat of ’98. “We weren’t ready to play,” he told them, “and we got beat pretty badly.”
Excuses flavored red, white and blue tried to explain the 3-1/2 to 1-1/2 deficit the Americans faced after the opening foursomes or the 7-3 hole they dug themselves on Day 1. It was pretty much over after the Internationals won the morning foursomes on Day 2, 4-1/2 to 1/2, and what got the blame was the schedule-maker, or the lack of American enthusiasm, or even Jack Nicklaus’ captaincy. Rarely are the Internationals given credit.
“It did have the elements of a perfect storm,” Nobilo said. “We were desperate for a win and we nearly had won in 1996 (a one-point U.S. win) when we really came together. So, we felt confident in 1998. Maybe they helped us, certainly the course helped us, but we truly had a great team chemistry that year. Such a cool experience.”
Unlike Nicklaus, who was hand-delivered the world’s top four-ranked players – Woods, Mark O’Meara, David Duval, Davis Love III – and five others in the top 20, Thomson had the proverbial top-heavy squad. Els (No. 5), Nick Price (6), Vijay Singh (9), Elkington (16) and Norman (18) were established world-class players, but from there, it was a pair of unheralded Aussies (Stuart Appleby, Parry), two unknown entities from Japan (Maruyama and Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki), and from a country of very few golf courses, Paraguay, came Carlos Franco.
Oh, and to round out the team, Thomson – a legend in Australia – chose a couple of Kiwis, Nobilo and Turner. It was a move that unsettled many golf fans Down Under, Aussies and New Zealanders being bitter enemies. “But Peter probably liked the fact that Frank and I had played a lot of Dunhill Cups together,” said Turner, a four-time European Tour winner. “Give him credit. He probably felt it was about the team, not the individuals.”
Banded together, the International Team consisted of seven players ranked outside the top 30 in the OWGR, with four outside the top 50. Five of the 12 players had not won anywhere that season.
On the flip side, each of the 12 Americans had won that year on the PGA TOUR (O’Meara capturing two majors, Lee Janzen one). No wonder Thomson described the U.S. as “the mightiest team ever assembled.”
The National Sportsbook of Australia agreed, making Nicklaus’ team overwhelming favorites. A $1 wager would only return $1.40.
Parry insists that he was among 12 people in Australia that week who thought the Presidents Cup would be competitive. “The Americans were better – on paper. But we were better on grass,” he said.
Better in ways that could never have been imagined and to a degree that was inexplicable. Maybe there was something to the whispers that circulated that week, that the Americans were not quite a cohesive unit. Even Nicklaus conceded to reporters that players had approached him Wednesday night, voicing concerns about being in the dark about the pairings and not having a say in the process.
How much that played into the outcome is difficult to say. But when the competition ended, the American head-shaking began in earnest.
“The whole picture of this thing is hard to believe. We are in a state of shock,” said Mark Calcavecchia, after playing Turner to a halve in a singles match that was rendered meaningless. So overwhelming was the International’s 20-1/2 to 11-1/2 drubbing that it was virtually clinched in the first few singles games.
If there was an indelible image of the ’98 Presidents Cup, likely it was the radiant smile seemingly cemented on the new face. Maruyama would win the first of his three PGA TOUR tournaments two years later, but back then he was just 29 and barely known outside of his native Japan. That he was embraced by Aussies and Kiwis, South Africans and even a Paraguayan, said it all about captain Thomson’s team.Peter Thomson captained the International team in 1996, 1998 and 2000. (Craig Jones/Allsport)
“He was infectious the minute we got together,” Nobilo recalled of the man who would be nicknamed “The Smiling Assassin.”
Parry was perhaps the one player who needed no introduction. He had played a lot in Japan and “I knew Shigeki was a very, very good player. He was quite aggressive, but it’s not easy to play Royal Melbourne that way.”
Thomson saw Parry as Maruyama’s foursomes partner and the man affectionately called “Popeye” didn’t hesitate. “I knew a little Japanese and I guided him around.”
Parry is being modest, at least according to Maruyama. “Craig Parry helped me a lot and covered my mistakes,” said Maruyama, who splits his time now between Los Angeles and Japan and keeps close tabs on his only child, Sean, now a sophomore on the golf team at UCLA.
Sean was born 18 months after his father’s 1998 heroics at Royal Melbourne and was just three months old when Shigeki played in the 2000 Presidents Cup. But they have been united at two Presidents Cups since then – in 2013 at Muirfield Village, when Sean attended and helped as interpreter for his father, who served as an assistant to captain Price; then, in 2017 when Shigeki attended to watch his son play in the Junior Presidents Cup in New Jersey.
Still, it was that week in Melbourne 21 years ago that remains unforgettable, and Shigeki heaped praise on his Aussie friend. “I believed I could contribute a little bit, but our victory is 90 percent thanks to him,” he said.
If the Parry-Maruyama win in foursomes over Janzen and Scott Hoch in that first session opened eyes, what they did the next day was stunning – a 1-up victory over Woods and Fred Couples. Throw in a pair of four-ball wins alongside his countryman, Ozaki, and a singles decision over John Huston, and Maruyama registered what established an International Team record, 5-0 perfection. (That was matched in 2015 by Branden Grace.)Shigeki Maruyama (left) and Craig Parry (right) during the 1998 Presidents Cup. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
Parry’s willingness to take Maruyama wasn’t the only example of what helped draw the team together. While Thomson was committed to the teams of Norman and Elkington (3-0-1), Els and Singh (2-1-0), and Nobilo-Turner (2-1-0), Price and Parry raised their hands to partner with Franco, who might have been the biggest outsider on the team, a Paraguayan who played in Japan and had never been to Australia.
“We are so many different nations, different cultures, it’s sometimes difficult,” Nobilo said. “But that week was different, and we discovered that Carlos was a character. On our bus rides to and from the course, he started the karaoke. It takes someone to break the ice.”
Franco was 0-2-1 that week, but his mates easily covered him. The Internationals won each of the four team sessions, split in singles, 6-6, and simply gave the home crowd an excessive amount to cheer about. That it started from an opening game that featured a pair of Kiwis was improbable, to say the least.
“I mean, fair to say we weren’t raging favorites,” laughed Turner, who saw it as a good thing he and Nobilo were taking on O’Meara and Duval. “In some ways, it unburdened us. They were Nos. 1 and 3 in the world. The public probably thought we had 1-in-20 chance of winning.”
How that opening game played out proved to be an omen for the International Team. The 40-foot putt Nobilo made at the first hole got the crowd into it and it only got better. Clinging to a 1-hole lead at 17, Nobilo slipped home a twisting 3-footer to get a halve. Then, at 18, with O’Meara having stuff his approach to 6 feet, Turner – urged by Nobilo to hit 6-iron and not 7-iron – landed his shot more than 40 feet from the hole.
“Well, you better make the putt,” Turner said to Nobilo.
Guess what? His fellow Kiwi did, thanks to a quirk of fate. Nobilo said his caddie, Anthony “Antman” Knight, insisted he knew the line, having had this putt when he caddied for Wayne Riley, who won the 1991 Australian Open at Royal Melbourne with a 40-footer on the last hole.
“No doubt in his mind,” said Nobilo, so why not? He trusted Knight and because he did, “the crowd went absolutely nuts – and it’s unusual to get the Aussies behind the Kiwis.”
That birdie roll fell and stunned the O’Meara-Duval team. What followed was the first of three wins by the Elkington-Norman team and it was if the wrapper was off the crowd’s belief that maybe, just maybe, the Internationals could hang in there. There was credit to spread up and down the lineup, said Nobilo, but a good dose of it had to go to Elkington.
Elkington in his prime was a premier ball-striker, an immense talent. Most of all, “he was totally invested in the Presidents Cup,” Nobilo said. “He got it. He was the one who fired the team up on the bus ride in the morning. He wasn’t just into his game, he was to everyone else on the team what a cornerman is to a boxer.”
So, when it was over, and the International Team had sent recorded a resounding victory, Elkington understandably took great joy. “We creamed them,” he said to reporters.
No one can say he was wrong.
The Presidents Cup
History in the Making: 1998 Presidents Cup