Tiger Woods was sitting on one side of the patterned couch with muted colors. Ernie Els was on the other side. At the time, they were ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in the world, respectively, and on a collision course that neither could have imagined a few days later.
The man sitting between them never learned to play golf. He dealt in more serious issues. Nelson Mandela — fours years after completing his historic term as the first post-apartheid president of South Africa — gently placed his left hand on Woods’ arm as the two golfers shook hands. All three were smiling. It was a show of great sportsmanship … and a foreshadow of how the week would end.
The 2003 Presidents Cup, held at Fancourt Resort in George, South Africa, goes down as one of the PGA TOUR’s most legendary events. There was Mandela, his presence providing the event with unprecedented gravitas. There were the captains — Gary Player for the International Team, Jack Nicklaus for the U.S. Team. Els and Woods were at the top of their games, and the Internationals were not yet burdened by the long losing streak that haunts the current generation.
But as delicious as the set-up was, the ending was just as memorable. With the two teams tied at 17 points following the completion of Sunday’s Singles action — Woods defeated Els 4 and 3 in their match — Presidents Cup rules required a sudden-death playoff between two players to determine the winner. Woods and Els had been pre-selected by their respective captains to participate in the playoff, and so the showdown began, the outcome of the entire tournament now weighing heavily on their shoulders.
On the first playoff hole (no. 18), both players converted par putts inside 10 feet. On the second playoff hole (no. 1), Els drained a 12-foot par saver after missing the green to halve the hole. On the third playoff hole (the par-3 no. 2), Woods’ tee shot landed 90 feet from the pin; Els was 45 feet away. After their birdie attempts, Tiger was left with a 15-foot par putt and Els had a 6-footer. In the fading light, Tiger made his putt, punching the air in celebration. Els calmly followed by making his par putt to again halve the hole.
That’s when the action stopped and the conversations heated up. Believing it unfair to continue play in the darkening skies, captains Nicklaus and Player discussed the possibility of simply calling it a tie and sharing the Presidents Cup. Then-PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem was involved, and the two captains also consulted their respective sides. Finally, it was declared a tie, with Nicklaus and Player raising their hands together in a show of unity the likes of which golf may never see again.
“I think it’s the perfect decision,” Woods said that night. “The way the week has gone, it’s the right decision for the game of golf.”
Els called it a “fitting finish” in the spirit of The Presidents Cup.
“We really beat each other up,” Els noted, “and at the end of the day, I think we were so evenly matched, it would have been unfair to myself and Tiger to win or lose the Cup. It’s a team event, and to play in the darkness, you bring luck into it, also.
“I think it was a fair decision.”