Really, it's all fun and (head) games

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

MANASSAS, Va. -- Everybody involved takes great pains to explain how the Presidents Cup is a friendlier version of the Ryder Cup. That's well established.

But it doesn't mean that one side or the other won't try to get an advantage by any means possible.

So, the past few days, the International side has stolen a page from the Europeans, who went overboard to be fan-friendly at last year's Ryder Cup and made a lot of friends in the process. As the Internationals have played their practice rounds, no autograph request went unsigned at any place on the golf course.

The fly in the ointment is that, at the start of the week, captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player had agreed the teams would sign autographs only at the conclusion of practice. In accordance with that agreement, the American players have been walking right by the autograph hounds, refusing to interact with the galleries. The Internationals, on the other hand, have been obliging every request.

When queried about it yesterday, International assistant captain Ian Baker-Finch feigned grave concern that his players would make the Americans look bad.

"No," he said, looking at his team in mock reproach. "You didn't? Honest, we told them not to (sign)."

Nicklaus was steamed about the, ahem, misunderstanding, suggesting that by ignoring the agreement, the Internationals were "making us look like jerks."

Well, if the shoe fits ...

"All I know is I've got a bunch of players coming in off the course and telling me the other team is making them look bad," Nicklaus said. "Gary said he just didn't understand (the agreement)."

In the grand scheme, this modest kerfuffle will be quickly forgotten once the live ammunition starts to fly today. How the partnerships mesh and perform will be the determining factors.

"All in all," Player said, "it doesn't matter whether you're a Masters champion teeing off here this week or you haven't played well recently; it's what you do this week."

That doesn't stop the two captains from playing head games with each other during the pairings process. They deal in rumour and innuendo, trying to figure out what the other guy will do.

"I won the toss and put down Adam Scott and Retief Goosen," Player said. "And Jack said 'I didn't think you'd do that.' "

As it turned out, that was the matchup Nicklaus said he wanted for Woods and Fred Couples and he countered with that.

"It's a lot of fun to try to strategize and work it out on paper," Nicklaus said. "But no matter what teams you throw out there, anybody can beat anybody. I think we've got some great matches."

Foursomes (alternate shot) are the trickiest of games to predict because the partnership is so crucial. Each player must be able to handle the shots he is left by his mate. He must also handle the enormous guilt that accompanies leaving his partner in a lousy spot with a poor shot.

On paper, the U.S. partnerships appear to have an edge, but the underdog role is one Player believes he can use to his team's advantage.

"I'm a believer in the theory that the first day can be important, especially if you can deliver a shock to the other side," he said. "Look at that first match. You've got the best player in the world, Tiger Woods. But if a guy on our team can beat him, then it ripples through the entire team. It can be a big encouragement."

Whatever the outcome, it is a marathon, not a sprint. By the end of the weekend, there will have been 34 matches that factor into the final score. And, so often, it comes down to one shot, on one hole in one match.

"That's what's so great about these things," Nicklaus said. "You grind and you grind and then it comes down to who makes the last putt.

"That's fun."

For some, maybe. But it's not everybody's cup of tea and that's what makes it so unpredictable.


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