Els, Woods invoke memories of epic ’03 Presidents Cup playoff

ORLANDO, Fla. – There was clearly a forward spin to the press conference Tuesday that brought Tiger Woods and Ernie Els together at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the icons having agreed to be captains for the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in Australia.

It will be the 13th edition of the biennial team golf competition, the sixth time on foreign soil, and the third trip to vaunted Royal Melbourne. But as you absorbed the presence of Woods and Els with a Presidents Cup backdrop, one couldn’t help but think back to that unforgettable day nearly 15 years ago at Fancourt in South Africa when the incomparable Jack Nicklaus offered an exclamation point of a quote: “Everybody’s comfortable that this is the most unbelievable event the game has ever seen.”

Older and wiser, Woods and Els smiled when PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan invoked memories of that 2003 Presidents Cup. It ended in a 17-17 tie, even after the teams tried to settle it with an epic three-hole playoff between Woods and Els. “I still wonder how they got through it,” said the commissioner. “One of the greatest moments this sport has ever seen.”

The introduction of the 2019 Presidents Cup captains brought levity and mutual respect – Woods and Els have been arguably two of the best players in the world since 1996 – but perhaps the most intriguing aspect was the admission by Woods that this captaincy was his idea, broached to Monahan in October. “Jay said, ‘Yeah, we might be able to work it out,’ ” said Woods.

Clearly, they worked it out, along with two other agreements: That each team will have four captain’s picks and that players will only be required to play in one match before singles.

As for the possibility that there could be a playing captain, something that hasn’t happened in the Presidents Cup since the inaugural in 1994, there were emphatic reactions. “Yes, I have,” said Woods, with a smile, when asked if he has thought about it. But Els, 48 and surely in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, indicated that he was focused more on leading the International Team, which is 1-10-1 and has lost seven in a row.

Whether Woods’ career continues at its rapid improvement and affords him an opportunity to even consider being player-captain, Monahan cited the leadership of both these icons as having “a huge impact” on the competition in Australia. “These men will take the game deeper and wider than it’s ever been.”

To many who were there at Fancourt in 2003, Woods and Els took competitive golf to rarified air.

Tied after 35 matches, what followed was a half-hour of twilight golf where the American said he felt “the most pressure ever” and the South African conceded his “legs were shaking.” They tied all three holes, producing pulsating theater and must-make putts that demanded every ounce of the skills that had them Nos. 1 (Woods) and 3 (Els) in the world.

The icons halved the 18th, a par 5. What followed was a sequence of riveting pressure golf. At the par-4 first, Els slipped home a 10-foot putt, but Woods tossed in a 3-footer on top of him. At No. 2, a beefy par 3 of 234 yards, Woods somehow coaxed in a 12-footer and Els, knocking knees and all, equaled it from 5 feet.

As they sat together to make the 2019 announcement, Woods and Els smiled at the ’03 memory. Woods recalled seeing a sea of red shirts – American players, family and friends – “this entire team right in my line . . . so I know if I miss, we lose.” While Els still shakes his head. “I thought I had him beat for once. He had a left-to-right putt, 4 feet of break – and in darkness.”

Woods being Woods, he made it and when the three holes left the teams tied, like cornermen for two big heavyweights, Nicklaus, the U.S. captain, and Gary Player, the International Team captain, agreed that enough was enough. Darkness and good sense prevailed. The Presidents Cup would be shared.

Those who were there raised a toast to the mutual decision. Wrote John Garrity in Sports Illustrated: “Stop thinking, stop arguing and stop wondering. What Nicklaus and Player did at Fancourt was no different from what Michelangelo did when he stopped nibbling at his statue of David: They preserved a perfect outcome.”

To this day, Woods and Els would agree with that sentiment. For all their individual success – 79 PGA TOUR wins for Woods, 66 world-wide triumphs for Els – this team play business ignites a passion which they promise to bring to Royal Melbourne.

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