Internationals hopeful of a decent start

SAN FRANCISCO: Ernie Els spoke to the state of the Presidents Cup when he sized up the pairings for the opening session at Harding Park and spelled out a best-case scenario for the International team.

"If we can get out tied tomorrow," he said, "I think we've had a great day."

That was a step up from his previous assessment anything better than its last start would be an improvement. Two years ago at Royal Montreal, the Americans didn't lose a match on the opening day in building a five-point lead, and the cup effectively was over.

Then again, it's been that way for more than a decade.

The International team shows up with mighty credentials — some believe it is the best team of a Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup — yet it rarely goes home with the gold trophy. Its only victory came 11 years ago in Australia. It has never won on American soil.

Perhaps that will change in the role as underdogs.

"Maybe it will take the pressure off us," Retief Goosen said. "And we can just go play."

The eighth edition of the Presidents Cup begins Thursday with six foursomes matches that were put together by captains Fred Couples and Greg Norman, both of whom conceded they could have done just as well drawing names from a hat.

It starts with Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim, a successful team at the Ryder Cup last year, going against Tim Clark and Mike Weir. Bringing up the rear is Goosen and PGA champion Y.E. Yang against Justin Leonard and Jim Furyk.

Perhaps the most compelling match is Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker against Geoff Ogilvy and 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, the youngest player in the history of this event, and the player with more victories than anyone on the International team over the last year.

Ishikawa is used to the commotion. He played with Woods and Lee Westwood the first two days of the British Open.

"They are going to be very strong," Ishikawa said. "But golf is a game that you just never know what will happen. I'm going to do my best and play hard until the end, and hopefully we can come out victorious."

Couples said the pairings were easy to make, and it was tough to find a dull match.

"With 24 of the top players in the world, you're not going to get a bad pairing in the Presidents Cup," he said.

Most of those top players are dressed in red, white and blue this week.

Even though the International side has four players with multiple majors — Els, Goosen, Vijay Singh and Angel Cabrera — Ogilvy is the only player among the top 10 in the world.

Seven players have not won a tournament this year, including Singh and captain's pick Adam Scott.

"We normally come here with a very good team on paper, and it seems like this year, some of us haven't played that great," Els said. "We feel like we are underdogs, and I think we kind of want to prove something this week."

They have been loose as ever, and so have their opponents.

The Americans always look as though they are having a good time at the Presidents Cup, perhaps because they usually are winning. The extra dimension this week has been the appearance of Michael Jordan, who is an honorary assistant captain.

He has dressed in a team uniform, smoking his cigar until city officials caught wind of it and asked the tour to remind Jordan that smoking is banned at Harding Park, even for an NBA icon.

The PGA Tour has declined to make Jordan available for interviews to the media this week (except for its own Web site), saying it doesn't want him to take the focus away from the Presidents Cup.

But that's all the players are talking about this week.

Jordan was allowed to play with some of the Americans on Monday, and wound up taking money from Sean O'Hair.

"I think he's a team motivator," Zach Johnson said. "You talk about the best basketball player of all time, but you're also talking about one of the best team players of all time. When you add that ingredient into it, I just think it's a positive."

Both captains prepared for opening day by having their players compete in alternate shot Wednesday. Nothing really matters — the practice, the pairings, the credentials, the honorary assistant — until Thursday.

Singh, the only player to compete in every match at the Presidents Cup, is as perplexed as anyone why the International team has struggled in recent years, particularly in foursomes.

The Americans won 10 1/2 points from 11 matches in that format last time. At the start of the decade, the Americans went 9-1 in foursomes on their way to the biggest rout in cup history.

"In the past, we have sort of been on paper the stronger team, and we didn't do too well," Singh said. "So this is the first time we are sort of the underdogs. I think the team spirit is a little bit different. We want to prove ourselves a little bit more this week. The guys are pretty fired up."