Rarely has one putt meant so much to so many.
When Chris DiMarco sank a big-breaking 14-footer to clinch the Presidents Cup, he touched off the kind of bedlam that seldom visits a golf course. The other members of the U.S. squad swarmed the final green of Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, in Manassas, Va., dissolving into one sloppy, red-white-and-blue hug. Wives indiscriminately kissed the cheeks of their husband's teammates, and the moment was so warm and fuzzy, even Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson embraced. Justin Leonard, a former British Open champion whose 45-foot birdie putt clinched the 1999 Ryder Cup, stood in the middle of the green and said, "This is right up there with anything I've ever experienced."
The celebration was cathartic because the U.S. had felt the need to send a message to the world: American golf is not dead. The multimillionaires who commuted to the Presidents Cup in their private jets really do care. A lot. It just took one sidehill 14-foot birdie putt for them to be able to show it.
The outpouring of emotion also had a lot to do with the wrinkled gent serving as the U.S. captain, Jack Nicklaus. He was at the tail end of a wrenching year during which he had buried his 17-month-old grandson, Jake, who had drowned. Every U.S. player at the Presidents Cup had spoken passionately about his desire to honor Captain Jack with a win, and the team was further galvanized on the eve of the competition when it presented Nicklaus with a portrait of Jake, which will hang at the newly dedicated Nicklaus Children's Hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It's the sweetest thing that's ever been done for me," the 65-year-old Nicklaus said. "I was crying like a baby." In the heady moments after DiMarco sank his putt, the winner of 18 majors would pronounce his team's victory one of the most satisfying moments of his epic career.
They may have wanted to win for Nicklaus, but the Presidents Cup was sweet vindication for many of his players. DiMarco's winning putt capped a week during which he went 4-0-1, not bad for a guy with an unorthodox swing and claw putting grip who had become a one-man affront to the World Ranking points system: He cracked the Top 10 this year even though he hadn't won a tournament since 2002. But DiMarco's performance at the Prez Cup solidified his reputation as a big-time player.
The victory also went a long way toward rehabbing the reps of Woods and Mickelson. When last paired together, at the 2004 Ryder Cup, they combined for two losses on the opening day and could not disguise their contempt for each other. Ever since, that performance has been used as Exhibit A in the argument that the U.S. team is a collection of divas with egos too big to play for their flag rather than themselves. In the afterglow of the victory Nicklaus hailed both of his superstars as model teammates.
Meanwhile, two grinders dispelled forever the notion that the Yanks lacked toughness. David Toms put off a heart procedure to play in the Presidents Cup, and Jim Furyk overcame a rib injury so painful, a physical therapist followed him around the course to provide occasional treatment. Then there was Fred Couples, he of the bad back and shaky putter, who came through with the key upset during the final-day singles, asking for and then taking down the International's big dog, Vijay Singh. Couples stole the match with his own birdie putt--and madcap celebration--on the 18th green. That may go down as the last shining moment for Couples, who is so beloved by his teammates that Davis Love got tears in his eyes when he heard about the victory. At the time Love was on the 14th hole of his own singles match, and he regained just enough composure to drain a birdie putt that helped propel him to victory.
All these triumphs came against a backdrop of American failure for the past decade at the Ryder Cup. If Leonard's bomb at the 1999 Ryder Cup lips out, the U.S. could easily be winless since '93 in golf's most hyped event. The pressure not to lose is so extreme at the Ryder Cup that the U.S. often plays with too much caution. The more relaxed vibe of the Prez Cup and its less punitive course setups bring out the best in the freewheeling American players, and the fun they have between the ropes has helped turn it into golf's feel-good event. If the Ryder Cup seems like a pitched battle, the Presidents Cup plays out as a cheery international goodwill match, which is, after all, what these international team events were designed to be. Two years ago galleries in South Africa were enthralled by a hard-fought tie, an outcome that Nicklaus and International captain Gary Player hammered out on the fly as darkness set in. The potentially thorny situation was handled so diplomatically that Bill Clinton, speaking at this year's opening ceremonies, suggested that Nicklaus and Player are the only men who might be able to bring peace to the Middle East.
At the very least the Presidents Cup has created plenty of cheer at home. After the dramatic finish this year, the American players were serenaded with what in recent years has been the rarest of chants in men's golf: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!