Tiger Woods never felt more pressure over a single shot.

He barely could read the double break on his 15-foot par putt in the gathering darkness in South Africa. Adding to the jangled nerves was seeing a block of red shirts huddled to the right of the second green, where his 11 teammates watched high drama unfold at the Presidents Cup.

So much for these matches lacking intensity.

They have been described as a happier occasion than the Ryder Cup, but it sure didn’t feel that way to Woods.

“I saw everybody there and kept looking in the opposite direction,” Woods recalled. “You don’t want to know all of your teammates are over there looking at you, hoping you make the putt. You don’t want to let them all down.

“That was probably one of the best – if not the best – putts I’ve ever made.”

Next up was Ernie Els, who felt even more pressure. No one has finished second to Woods more often than the Big Easy, and his 6-footer to halve the hole was equally tough. Els saw his team gathered in their royal blue shirts, along with a home crowd perched atop the knolls surrounding the green.

“I was walking with Mike Weir, and Mike said he was more nervous watching these guys putt than he was putting to win the Masters,” Adam Scott said. “I’m glad it was Ernie putting.”

The Presidents Cup delivered everything but a winner two years ago in South Africa. Soon after Els made his putt, U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus and International captain Gary Player realized it was too dark to continue. Considering how these matches had gone, they figured the best thing to do was call it a tie.

Now, both teams have a score to settle.

“It’s a pity we ran out of daylight,” Retief Goosen said. “But it’s quite good now that it ended the way it did, because we can sort of carry on from last time. It was so close. This time, we can go at it again.”

But the sixth Presidents Cup matches, which start Thursday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in northern Virginia, hardly can be called a continuation.

The Americans now have a distinct advantage at RTJ, where they have never lost in three previous matches and last time handed the International team its worst loss.

There will be no playoff. Nicklaus and Player never liked the idea of putting two names in an envelope to decide the Presidents Cup in a sudden-death playoff, believing it was too much pressure for any one player to carry. Now, singles matches that are tied after regulation will go extra holes until one team has the required 17 points to win.

And while the teams are far stronger than what the Ryder Cup gets – eight of the top 10 players in the world, with 24 major championships among them – the International team is missing a key player. Els, who matched Woods putt-for-putt in a playoff of epic intensity, had knee surgery last month and is recovering at home in England.

“It was a massive blow to lose your No. 2 player. We’ve got to do the best we can,” said Player, who returns as captain of the International team that features players from everywhere but Europe.

Nicklaus also agreed to return as U.S. captain for the third time in the Presidents Cup, and his first at home. His team was hammered at Royal Melbourne in 1998, and staged a stirring rally in singles two years ago in South Africa.

He has no complaints about his team.

Woods has won five times – including two majors – this year, while Phil Mickelson is coming off his second major title at the PGA Championship. Seven of his 12 players have won on the PGA Tour this year. But despite Els’ absence, Nicklaus doesn’t see a big advantage for the Americans.

“I still think the International team is probably a little stronger than we are,” he said. “Let’s go in there and say, Hey, we might be on our home soil, but we might have to work real hard to win this.’ I like to keep them hungry.”

The last cup competition involving the American men was a disaster. Europe played better and enjoyed itself more in winning the Ryder Cup last year at Oakland Hills, 181/2-91/2, for its biggest rout.

Woods was among those quick to point out that Americans are 1-4 in the Ryder Cup since the Presidents Cup was created in 1994. Some have suggested it is tough for the Americans to play these matches every year.

But the Presidents Cup provides the solution, not the problem.

The hype is nowhere near what the Ryder Cup gets, and it shows in how loose the U.S. team plays.

“Our team is too tight in the Ryder Cup, plain and simple,” Jim Furyk said.

Chris DiMarco described the difference as the Ryder Cup having “genuine hostility, whereas in the Presidents Cup there is genuine respect.”

“We want to win the Presidents Cup as much as we do the Ryder Cup,” he said. “But it’s a more relaxed atmosphere.”

That can change during the matches, however.

DiMarco couldn’t spit as he stood on the 17th hole two years ago, all square with Stuart Appleby in a match the Americans had to win to have any chance. Kenny Perry was in tears after his roller-coaster victory over Nick Price, and Price was so distraught he showed a rare bit of rage by slamming the putter over his leg and bending the shaft.

Then came the sudden-death playoff.

“My first thought was I’m glad it wasn’t me out there,” Perry said. “It was intense. They kept making putt on top of putt, and they were clutch. It made me realize how great those guys really are, to realize their whole team and country were riding on their back, and they were able to stand up to it.”

Asked how many players on his team would have wanted to be in his position, Woods laughed.

“Probably not many,” he said. “I didn’t want to be there.”

What might help the Americans this time around is that the matches are being played one month after the teams were decided. In 2003, the Presidents Cup took place three months later.

“The teams are named, and we’re ready to go,” Scott said. “It’s going to be some good competition. I’d like to get my hands on the trophy and look forward to the Sunday night celebration. We did a pretty good job celebrating last time, and we didn’t even win the thing.”

AP-ES-09-15-05 1702EDT

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