Finally time for the Presidents Cup

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George, South Africa (Sports Network) - If it seems like it's been forever since the last Presidents Cup, you're not crazy. The last staging was in 2000 and after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Ryder Cup, scheduled for 2001, was pushed back a year. So that the Presidents Cup wouldn't be scheduled for the same year as the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, originally set for 2002, was moved back until now. But the time is here for the battle of the Americans and the International team of non-Europeans. Starting with six foursomes, or alternate-shot matches, Thursday, the fifth Presidents Cup begins at The Links Course at Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate in George, South Africa.

This year marks the second time the event is held outside the United States. The International team dusted the Americans in 1998 at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Melbourne, Australia. That marked the only win for the Internationals and in 2000, the U.S. returned the favor by spanking the International side, 21 1/2-10 1/2 in Virginia.

This year's captains have a valuable place in the event. Gary Player, the leader of the International squad is the course designer at Fancourt and is heading his side for the first time. He is one of South Africa's most famous sports stars.

Jack Nicklaus, captaining the U.S. side for the second time, was at the helm for the American's embarrassing 20 1/2-11 1/2 drubbing down under. He admitted that he didn't take the job as seriously as required in '98 so he could be a major factor in '03.

The selection of Nicklaus was also a calculated maneuver by the PGA Tour, who oversees the competition. There were overtures by some American stars (Tiger Woods, and ) that the trip was not worth it for them. It's near the holidays (not as bad as Australia, which was less than two weeks before Christmas when it was played), and quite frankly, the Presidents Cup is not the Ryder Cup.

That is the biggest problem the Presidents Cup faces. It does not have the history or acclaim as the Ryder Cup, which pits Americans versus Europeans. Most U.S. players would travel anywhere in Europe to play in the Ryder Cup, which was first played in 1927.

Prior to every Ryder Cup, the U.S. side has very little contact with the European side. Colin Montgomerie, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke play most of their golf in Europe, only interacting with the Americans at majors and WGC events.

The contrast with the Presidents Cup is that most members of the International team live in America. According to the PGA Tour media guide, only four members of the International team (Robert Allenby, , Stephen Leaney and Adam Scott) live outside the United States. Allenby and Goosen already play predominantly on the PGA Tour while Scott and Leaney are expected to add more time in 2004.

It's hard to bring the animosity that the Ryder Cup offers to the Presidents Cup when you run into members of the opposition at the local supermarket.

Another difference between the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup is the format. At the Ryder Cup, it's eight foursomes matches and eight fourball matches over Friday and Saturday, with 12 singles.

For the Presidents Cup, this year there are six foursomes matches on Thursday, five fourball matches followed by five foursomes matches on Friday, six fourball matches on Saturday and 12 singles on Sunday. This is the first time that all 12 players are required to be in competition before Sunday.

Also, the selection of matches is different because one captain announces his team or player, then his counterpart puts whomever he wants against them. Basically, this sets up a singles match of Woods and either or .

As far as those teeing it up at the Presidents Cup, according to the latest World Golf Rankings, it's pretty even. The U.S. has five players in the top-10 compared to four for the Internationals, but the International team has four more from 11-20, while the Americans only have two.

The captain's picks favor the U.S. slightly as (26) and (34) are solidly in the top-35. is 19th in the world but Tim Clark, who was selected largely on his third-place finish at the PGA Championship, is 70th.

With parity like that, pairings become essential. Based on their play at last year's Ryder Cup, two teams from the American side look to be solidly in place. Woods and Love teamed to a 2-0 record at the Belfry while Mickelson and won 2 1/2 points as a duo in all four matches. These teams are not locks as both Haas and could play with Woods, especially Howell.

U.S. Open winner and played together last week at the World Cup and could reunite this week. That leaves , , Funk and for Nicklaus to mix and match.

The International side may also have two teams in place come Thursday. Els, the hometown favorite who has a house near Fancourt, and have won the World Cup and are close friends. Allenby and are very tight and should play together.

Player has a luxury with his remaining talent. PGA Tour money winner Singh, Masters champion and three-time major winner could team with anyone and that leaves untested rookies Scott, Leaney, Peter Lonard, Choi and Clark. Leaney and Lonard have that feeling of and in 2000. American leader Ken Venturi paired those two American rookies together and they went 3-0 as a team.

Howell, Love, Furyk, Funk and Kelly all placed in the top-10 in the Tour Championship to only Singh and Goosen on the other side. The teams are pretty even coming in with each team having its share of struggling players. Mickelson and DiMarco are not in form for the U.S. while Lonard has one top-10 since May.

That gives the Internationals a head up on the Americans as most on the home team is playing very well. So does the home-course advantage and the sheer fact that they want this more than the U.S. The Americans have to defend their country's honor every year and the Ryder Cup supercedes the Presidents Cup in the minds of the U.S. team.

More than any other factor, the Internationals, top-to-bottom, may even have a better team the Americans and since some of the U.S. players deep down don't want to be in South Africa, the Internationals are the pick to win.

The U.S. will certainly play harder for Nicklaus than they did during the debacle in Australia and because of the size of the crowd, they will probably get into it more than they think. The American side has guys that are genuinely excited about their first crack at it (DiMarco, Funk, Howell) but it will hinge on Woods, Furyk, Love and Mickelson. They have too much pride to pack it in but their commitment won't be where it should be.

That said, look for the Internationals to tighten the all-time gap to 3-2.

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