This is an edited extract of a chapter in Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sport Stories That Shaped a New Nation, about when The Presidents Cup was played in South Africa.
American presidents have proved to be keen golfers. Dwight Eisenhower, a two-term Republican from 1953-1961, was keenest of them all. Eisenhower was frequently ribbed by Democrats for spending too much time on the course. They quipped he played ‘a 36-hole work week’.
It has been said that Richard Nixon learned his golf as Eisenhower’s vice-president, while both Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have all alerted the world’s photographers to the fact that their talents lie elsewhere.
Started by the PGA in 1994, each edition of The Presidents Cup pits an American team against an International team over four days. In 1994, former president Gerald Ford fulfilled the role of honorary chairman for the opening tournament at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Virginia, with George Bush Snr (’96), the Australia prime minister John Howard (’98) and Bill Clinton (2000) following suit.
The 9/11 terror attacks delayed the 2001 Ryder Cup by a year, and the domino effect was that the fifth edition of The Presidents Cup was pushed back to 2003.
The event came to The Links at Hasso Plattner’s exclusive Fancourt resort, the German IT billionaire underwriting the tournament. Despite Plattner’s contribution, there were concerns within the PGA about the wisdom of bringing the tournament to a small town with a man’s name on the fabled Dark Continent.
Nelson Mandela was no longer president. HIV-Aids was rampant, and the notion of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ was a quaint relic. ‘Was “the new guy” OK?’ ‘Africa – was it viable as a venue?’ There was some hand-wringing but the questions were fielded politely, apprehensions soothed. With American precision, the circus swung south.
The role of honorary chairman during the 2003 event was played with great gusto by then president, Thabo Mbeki, who saw The Presidents Cup as a vase filled with the flowers of opportunity. ‘He interpreted The Presidents Cup literally,’ said Steyn Momberg, director of operations at Fancourt. ‘That buy-in shifted the entire focus. Half the Cabinet was there – Trevor Manuel, Ngconde Balfour, Aziz Pahad – and the enthusiasm for the event from the Cabinet and from corporate black South Africa was incredible.’
Mbeki was a president with a vision and he saw the hosting of The Presidents Cup as a shop window and an opportunity to further integrate South Africa into the brotherhood of nations. While Mbeki was penning statesmanlike editorials in the ANC’s online newsletter, the Americans were surging into action. In April 2001, Jack Nicklaus flew in from Atlanta with his son Jackie to play and review the Gary Player-designed course. At that stage Nicklaus was still expecting The Presidents Cup to unfold as scheduled the following year (the 9/11 tragedy hadn’t yet taken place) and, as captain of the American team, he was keen to ensure that a repeat of the Americans’ 1998 loss at Royal Melbourne didn’t happen again.
Player, Nicklaus’ counterpart, felt that anything was possible with Vijay Singh and Ernie Els in his team – 2002 and 2003 were barnstorming years for the Germiston-born South African. Only Tiger Woods stood between him and the No 1 spot in the world. Fans around the country licked their lips.
The logistical hurly-burly in George was, meanwhile, in full swing. For the only time in its history, George Airport
was declared ‘international’ for the month of The Presidents Cup and air traffic controllers needed to be flown down from Johannesburg to cope with increased flights.
With Mbeki and many in his Cabinet attending, the South African security apparatus became involved. There were checkpoints and lockdowns. Despite the heavy security presence there was more than a dollop of tabloid exaggeration in an article in the Cape Argus shortly before the 2003 edition started. ‘A ring of steel has been thrown around the event,’ trumpeted an article headlined ‘SA Air Force on alert for Terror from the Sky at Fancourt’.
Matters went off more slickly than predicted. Terror failed to emerge from the endless empty skies around George and approximately 70 000 people (paying R1 200 per ticket) saw a day’s worth of practice and four days of golf they wouldn’t forget.
Along with Els, Player had chosen two South Africans (Retief Goosen and Tim Clark), five Australians (Adam Scott, Peter Lonard, Stephen Leaney, Robert Allenby and Stuart Appleby) the Fijian, Singh, the then world No 2, as well as Canadian Mike Weir, Zimbabwe’s Nick Price and South Korea’s KJ Choi.
For his part, Nicklaus drew on five golfers in the world top 10 (Woods, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Kenny Perry and David Toms). Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson made it seven from the world top 20. If this wasn’t ridiculously intimidating, Nicklaus also chose Jay Haas and four rookies – Chris DiMarco, Jerry Kelly, Fred Funk and Charles Howell III – on his roster.
Thursday’s foursomes saw the International team take a narrow lead into day two, but on the Friday afternoon they were well and truly beaten by the Americans. Player fiddled with winning combinations on the second day. Thursday’s Singh/Goosen combination was broken, as was the Price/Weir pair, as the Internationals lost the Friday morning betterball (3-2) and the afternoon foursomes (4-1) to surrender their first-day lead.
The course wasn’t only treacherous for the players. Walking The Links was a challenge for the crowds. People slipped, became lost, twisted ankles. Realising that ease of access and distance between the occasional green and tee needed to be improved, the PGA acted. ‘Word went out that a bridge needed to be built,’ said Momberg. ‘There was a group of about nine in-house carpenters who were brought across from America and, one morning, they hammered together a bridge.
‘There was a sense that the Americans came in and said, “Thank you, it’s our tournament now,” and swept everyone aside – there were a couple of stand-up rows between Johann Rupert [of the Sunshine Tour] and Dennis Alpert, the tournament director, over the PGA’s commitment to development – but in terms of organisation, they were just brilliant.’
Player seemed to learn from Friday’s mistake because by Saturday some of his original pairs had been restored. Singh and ‘The Goose’ prevailed 2 & 1 over Woods and Howell III, and his Friday pair of Els and Clark beat Furyk and Haas 3 & 2. Indeed, Saturday was a dark day for the Americans. They lost all six matches and the whitewash meant that going into the final day on Sunday, Nicklaus’ men were four points behind. The ghost of Melbourne hovered.
That night Plattner had invited 300 guests to an exclusive party on his property and, a la Jay Gatsby, was present to greet everyone personally at the door. No expense was spared and he had hired Circque de Soleil to perform on his lawns. For whatever reason, the Americans didn’t honour their invitations. A bulk order to McDonald’s in George went out instead and they were content to stay in, munch double Macs, dip into their sachets of fries and slurp ruminatively on their milkshakes.
Much talk at Fancourt that weekend – and at Els’ house at nearby Herolds Bay, to which the International team were invited – was about Jonny Wilkinson, the England flyhalf. In extra time Wilkinson had drop-kicked England into history in Sydney, winning the Rugby World Cup final against Australia.
South Africa were long gone from the tournament by the time Wilkinson nailed his famous drop goal. The fumes
of their failed campaign lingered, however, because across The Presidents Cup weekend photographs had appeared in the media of bedraggled Springboks squatting naked in pools of freezing water at the infamous Kamp Staaldraad. What on earth had prompted the Bok management to embark upon such an ill-conceived boot camp?
Broader comparisons were impossible to resist. Here was President Mbeki, reaching outwards into the world, while there was Staaldraad, reaching backwards into some dark corner of the Springbok rugby soul. Momberg remembers Rupert haranguing a group of politicians and sports administrators, demanding they act upon the indignities of Staaldraad. What exactly, they asked, did he want them to do?
Sunday’s singles saw the Americans claw back. Furyk, Kelly, Perry and Howell III all prevailed for the Americans, with Goosen and Singh winning their two singles matches. As competition grew more intense, so temperatures rose. Price smashed his putter over his knee in frustration. The leaderboard was scrutinised like never before. With the visitors storming through the falling shadows, the singles were completed with the scores tied at 17-all.
At a hastily -convened parley Nicklaus proffered only half-jokingly that, as holders, the Americans should retain it.
Player looked at him long enough for Nicklaus to make another suggestion.
The organisers decided that each captain should pick his best player – Nicklaus chose Tiger, Player picked Ernie – and the two would play off over three holes in fading light. In the same way a rugby flyhalf turns his back on a kick when he knows his connection has been perfect, so Woods walks in putts. This he did on the third playoff hole, knowing Els still had a tricky putt from about four metres to even up.
As it was, Ernie nailed his putt to make it all-square after the third of the playoff holes. By now it was almost dark. Nicklaus and Player decided that for the first time in Presidents Cup history, the trophy would be shared.
Tiger was quoted as saying he thought it was ‘the perfect decision’, while Els’ emotions lingered in the present tense. ‘The blood pressure, to go through that, is quite something,’ he said. ‘That’s probably the most I ever felt it anywhere. It could come down to a putt – which is what it did.’