EARLIER THIS year, in a moment of youthful madness, Rory McIlroy described the Ryder Cup as nothing more than "an exhibition." While that rather stark assessment of the biennial battle between the old and new worlds is not without some truth, the Belfast boy should perhaps have saved his uncharacteristic burst of hyperbole for the new trophy in town, the Presidents Cup.
A sort-of Ryder Cup rip-off concocted by a PGA Tour that is never less than touchy about the fact that none of the five most important events in professional golf (the four majors and the RC) falls under the auspices of the game's biggest circuit, the PC is played in years when the RC isn't, between 12-man teams representing the US of A and EEE. That's "everyone except Europe," for those of you struggling on the acronym front.
The simmering antagonism felt by the PGAT and its diminutive leader, Tim Finchem, can be detected easily enough if one knows where to look. The wee man never misses a chance to devalue or diminish the RC. Next year, for example, the US side will arrive at Celtic Manor in Wales something less than fresh immediately after a four-weeks-out-of-five Fed-Ex Cup run. And in 2014, the PGAT has asked that the RC takes place at Gleneagles in mid-October, a time of year when daylight in Scotland is at something of a premium.
One of these years, a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson will rebel at such a scenario and skip the RC, thereby setting off a mass exodus from the European Tour's perennial cash cow. Without the mountains of cash generated by every home RC, the ET would face a decidedly dodgy future. While it would be a stretch to declare that tiny Timmy might derive any kind of vicarious pleasure from such an eventuality, it's a safe bet he wouldn't shed any tears either.
Right from the start, the PC has been all about money as far as the PGAT is concerned. For one thing, this eighth match in the series is the sixth to be played within the confines of North America. Little wonder then, that the US side has lost but once since the first encounter back in 1994. Or that the two matches Uncle Sam's nephews have failed to win were played in Australia and South Africa.
The inaugural matches were, in fact, rather hurriedly announced without a venue or any other detail of note when the tour got wind that International Management Group was close to starting a match of their own, one in which the players would be paid for their participation. Faced with being squeezed out of yet another high-profile event, the PGAT came up with the hotchpotch pseudo-Ryder Cup that still exists 15 years later. Neither one thing nor the other, the PC has never captured the imagination of the public, nor, it must be said, the players, especially those representing EEE.
There are a number of not-so-subtle differences between the RC and the PC. The PC, for example, last four days versus the RC's three. More gate money, you see. And singles matches at the PC are played until there is a decisive result, unlike the RC where halves are possible. So no "dormie" at the PC on Sundays.
"We're always looking to watch and learn," says Richard Hill, the European Tour's Ryder Cup director, who is at Harding Park, San Francisco, for this week's match. "I've been to four Presidents Cups now. We have consistently said that we are sticking to three days until it is proven that such a system doesn't work any more. We review it after each match, along with everything else. Tradition is the biggest factor though. If it was shown that four days was demonstrably better than three, we would look at changing. But we haven't reached that point yet."
Still, the most striking characteristic at any and every PC has been the attitude of the players. Where the RC actually matters to both sides, the PC does not. Okay, maybe a little. But no more than that.
"Our team spirit tends to build through the week," reveals Ernie Els, who is making his sixth PC appearance. "There is always plenty of banter between the Australians and the South Africans, who tend to make up most of the side (six of the 12 on this occasion]. But whom do we play for? In the end, we play for each other. We don't play for a continent or a country."
None of which is to say that, just occasionally, the PC doesn't get the old heart racing with a moment or two of controversy. Take this week. On day one EEE's Geoff Ogilvy had a six-foot putt on the third green to halve the hole. As he addressed the ball, a mobile phone rang. As he addressed the ball a second time, the phone rang again. And as he settled down to putt for a third time, the phone went off again. Then, when he eventually did hit the ball, a moron in the crowd yelled out mid-stroke.
Not many of the US press corps gathered here reported any or all of the above. And no one seemed to feel that Woods or Steve Stricker should have conceded Ogilvy his putt. Had a similar thing occurred in the UK it would have provoked huge back-page headlines. The guy yelling out would have been identified and interviewed, all as a prelude to a full-scale international incident breaking out.
OK, maybe a more low-key attitude towards the RC would be no bad thing in tabloid world, but, conversely, almost everyone has a hard time getting even a little worked up about the PC. Immediately after he and Adam Scott had closed out Hunter Mahan and Sean O'Hair by 2&1 on day one, Els seemingly couldn't be bothered to walk back and support his guys in the next match. Instead, the big South African teed off at the 18th and played quietly in by himself. Ho-hum.