The only thing missing was a winner

The members of the International and the USA teams after they agreed to share the Presidents Cup at the Links Course at Fancourt in George, South Africa. -- Pic. STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES-

TIGER WOODS never faced more pressure over one putt. Ernie Els couldn't stop his legs from shaking.

TIGER WOODS never faced more pressure over one putt. Ernie Els couldn't stop his legs from shaking.

The best two players in the world found themselves in a sudden-death playoff on the final day at the Presidents Cup following a stunning comeback by the Americans.

Under excruciating pressure, each made their putts on the third extra hole as teammates, families and caddies all huddled on hills surrounding the green, all nervously watching a heart-stopping scene. When it finally ended, the only thing missing was a winner.

As darkness gathered over the Links Course at Fancourt, the captains decided they had seen enough — and called it a draw.

"I have never seen two teams that played harder or played better," United States captain Jack Nicklaus said. "I did not find a team that deserved to lose."

The defending champion usually retains the cup when the matches end in a draw. Nicklaus and Gary Player agreed that both teams should share the cup, but only after a chaotic ending to an exquisite day.

First, the International team grudgingly accepted a draw until it was told that the United States — as defending champion — would retain the cup. Player gathered his troops on one end of the green, while Nicklaus took his to the other.

About the time the International team said it wanted to return the next day to finish the playoff, the Americans countered with an offer to share the cup.

Deal.

"I think it's the perfect decision," Woods said. "To have two guys decide the fate of the whole team in extra holes like that, I don't think any of the sides felt comfortable with that to begin with. We're here as a team. And we'd like to decide it as a team."

Ernie Els (right) of South Africa, representing the International team and Tiger Woods of USA were involved in a sudden-death playoff on the final day before the captains agreed to share the trophy. — Pic. STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES-

No other cup competition has a sudden-death option to decide the matches. It had never been used since the Presidents Cup was created in 1994.

Even before the matches began, the two captains criticised the format because they felt it put too much pressure on one player. Still, neither thought it would come down to that. But that's exactly how it played out.

The Americans, trailing by three points going into the final session of the singles, charged back behind dominant performances by Woods, Charles Howell III and Jay Haas, and clutch play from Jerry Kelly, Kenny Perry and Chris DiMarco. They were poised to win until Davis Love III muffed a difficult chip on the par-5 18th and took bogey, halving his match with Robert Allenby to give each team 17 points.

The captains each had to put a name in an envelope for the final day, and no one was surprised whose names they were — Els, a hero in South Africa, and Woods, the No. 1 player in the world. No one could have imagined what followed.

Some 10,000 fans chased after each shot, while players, their wives and caddies, dressed in U.S. red and International blue, perched on mounds for the best view.

"Pretty good stuff, huh?" Masters champion Mike Weir said to U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk as they followed along. Both players missed the green and settled for par on the first playoff hole.

Woods had the advantage on the second extra hole, No. 1, when he lagged his putt up the mound to about 4 feet. Els missed the green just long, and chipped to 12 feet.

Miss it, and the International team loses.

He knocked it in, and they went to the par-3 second hole. This time, the pressure shifted to Woods.

His tee shot came back down the slope, some 90 feet from the hole. His putt swung left up the ridge to about 15 feet away from the cup.

Miss it, and the United States loses.

"That was one of the most nerve-racking moments I've ever had in golf," Woods said. "You let everyone down with one putt. That's a lot of pressure."

Woods bent over to study his putt and saw a sea of red in the background — the American entourage, dressed in uniform.

"I saw all this red and I was just trying to block that out," he said. "I just got into my little world and made the putt."

It wasn't as easy as he made it sound. The putt went over a ridge and down toward the hole with about 10 inches of break. Plus, it was tough to read the grain in the grass because of the gloam.

"We couldn't even see the hole, let alone try to putt," Nicklaus said. "He couldn't have had a tougher putt. He just played it perfectly."

Els lagged his 70-foot putt from the right side of the green about six feet by the hole, and now faced the delicate par putt to avoid losing the cup for his team, and before his nation.

"You look over and see your team. You're like, `I've got to look away.' It's unbelievable pressure," Els said. "You just try and go back to the simple things in life. It's only a game, isn't it? It's a game you don't want to lose, but it's a game."

He holed the par putt, and both captains quickly approached. Nicklaus and Player had been talking from the first extra hole, neither wanting to see the outcome of a team competition decided by two players.

"We both knew it was wrong to start with," he said, referring to the playoff. "I think some people will be upset with that decision. Some people will probably pan Gary and me. But both Gary and I feel in our hearts — and I think both teams feel — that it was the right thing to do. And we stand by it."

Lost in the thrilling conclusion was the steely play of DiMarco, Kelly and Perry, who each won valuable points on the 18th hole; and the flop of Phil Mickelson, who became the first American to lose all five of his matches.

It was a symbolic ending for Nicklaus. He conceded a tricky par putt to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup, which ended in a draw. It is considered one of the greatest gestures of sportsmanship in golf.

And it was a fitting finish for Woods, who called his par putt on the final hole "one of the biggest putts in my life." His other great putts brought him a trophy, usually a major. This one was worth only a draw.