By Ricci Roberts
There’s not much I haven’t seen in 30 years as a caddie, but the 2003 Presidents Cup in South Africa—the country where I grew up—was the most bizarre finish to a competition I can recall.
After 34 matches over four days at The Links at Fancourt, the score was tied at 17. Unlike in the Ryder Cup, where the defending champion retains the trophy after a tie, Presidents Cup rules at the time called for deadlocks to be broken by a sudden-death playoff between two players “in the envelope”—meaning they had been preselected by their respective captains, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.
I’ve teamed with Ernie Els for most of the past 20 years, and I was on his bag at Fancourt. Being the most prominent active player from South Africa, Ernie really wanted to play well. He shouldered the responsibility of taking two younger guys, Tim Clark and Adam Scott, under his wing: Two pairings each with Clark in four-balls and Scott in foursomes delivered four points for the Internationals.
On Sunday, Ernie was off his game and lost to Tiger Woods, 4 and 3, in singles. Ours was the next-to-last match, and when it was over I started my post-round routine of sorting through the bag for Ernie’s things. I wasn’t aware there would be a playoff in the event of a tie. I assumed it was like the Ryder Cup, meaning the Americans would retain. So I was still at the 18th green after Ernie had gone to the practice ground. He had to come back for me, and you can imagine my reaction when he waved me over and said, “C’mon, mate, let’s go.”
What followed was one of the most extraordinary playoffs in golf history, pitting Ernie against Tiger. How often do you get to see the two best players in the world go head-to-head with so much at stake?
Both players made par putts inside 10 feet on the first playoff hole (No. 18). Tiger scored a textbook par on the next one (No. 1), but Ernie drove into the left rough, flew the green with his approach, and ended up facing a 12-footer to halve. Ernie is one of the best readers of greens ever. I hadn’t been asked to read a putt all day, which isn’t unusual with him. So when he said, “Best you come have a look at this,” I was surprised. And when the enormity of the situation hit me, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been in my life. Suddenly I realized our 11 teammates, their caddies, and our captain were all staring at me. The pressure of reading that putt was massive. What a relief when Ernie banged it in, dead center.
Ernie hit his tee shot to 45 feet on the third playoff hole, a par three, and Tiger’s ended up 90 feet away. I thought there was no way he could two-putt from there, but this after all was Tiger and somehow he did, sinking a 15-footer. Then, on cue, with all South Africa watching, Ernie made it on top of him from six feet for the halve. That moment was almost as exciting as winning a major. It was scary, actually.
By then it was pretty dark, but we could have played another hole. In fact, I’d hustled off the green toward the next tee box figuring time was of the essence. When I got there, I looked back and saw everyone milling around the 2nd green. I had no idea what was going on.
Someone shouted me back, and for the next few minutes I was as clueless as anyone else. I knew the Internationals were prepared to come back and carry on the next day, but Jack and Gary got on the phone with PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and they decided to call it a tie and share the cup.
There should have been an outcome with a clear winner. How do you begin a playoff then decide to call it a tie? The Americans had plans to leave that night. They wanted to go home.
It’s not likely the Presidents Cup will ever match the stature of the Ryder Cup—I caddied for Andrew Coltart in the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, and aside from winning four majors with Ernie, that was the greatest experience I’ve ever had in golf. But in terms of sheer drama, plus what it meant to South Africa to host the event, the ’03 Presidents Cup is hard to beat.
Ricci Roberts is Ernie Els’s longtime caddie.