Mandela highlights opening ceremony

Updated: November 20, 2003, 8:00 AM ET
Associated Press

GEORGE, South Africa -- The Presidents Cup requires everyone to play on the first day of matches. That's good news for Jerry Kelly, Fred Funk and the other American newcomers who have waited long enough for a taste of team competition.

South African president Thabo Mbeki officially opened the matches Thursday morning.

The spirited ceremony included appearances by Nelson Mandela and former President Bush, along with wild ovations by a large crowd anxious to see the biggest golf event ever in South Africa.

Six alternate-shot matches were scheduled Thursday afternoon.

By the look of the final practice round, some Americans couldn't wait to get going.

Funk, 47, was jogging off the tee boxes and up to the greens Wednesday. His energy level was as high as ever. His mouth was running nonstop.

Kelly, a much younger man at 36, had the swagger of a football player coming out of the tunnel at the start of the game. And that was on Tuesday.

Kelly and Chris DiMarco, another American playing in his first cup competition, were the second of six matches during the opening round of alternate shot. That was no accident.

''I wanted to get Jerry and Chris out early,'' said assistant captain Jeff Sluman, who filled out the pairing when captain Jack Nicklaus got sick. ''Jerry was thinking if this was the old format where you didn't play until Friday, he'd go crazy.

''This guy is so wired to go.''

Jay Haas, 49, and Funk played the final three holes of practice in the alternate-shot format against Kelly and DiMarco for 8 rand per hole -- a little more than $1.

''I thought Fred was going to jump out of his shirt there on the last hole, he was getting so fired up about it,'' Jay Haas said. ''I need to hose him down a little bit tomorrow.''

The fourth American in a team event for the first time is Charles Howell III, who flew over to South Africa with Tiger Woods and has been on the Links Course at Fancourt every day since Monday.

''I'm the youngest guy on the team,'' the 24-year-old Howell said. ''A lot of these guys have been out here a whole lot longer than I have and accomplished a lot more, stuff that I hope to accomplish one day. Playing as a team, it's pretty cool.''

The United States plays team competition every year -- the Ryder Cup in even-numbered years, the Presidents Cup in odd-numbered years.

Some of the Americans have complained that it's too much to maintain high enthusiasm. But for Funk, Kelly, DiMarco and Howell, that has hardly been a problem.

''Just stepping off the plane with some of them, being in the first meeting, just being around them, it was a great experience and a great feeling,'' Kelly said.

Funk, a captain's choice for the Presidents Cup, was so excited about the prospect of playing that he offered to row across the oceans to get to the Southern Cape.

Was the Presidents Cup everything he expected?

''Yeah, but I'm a little sore from rowing,'' Funk said. ''I know when the gun sounds and it's time for us to go, the nerves are going to be there. We've just got to take a deep breath and go out there and perform the way we know how.''

Funk and Haas, the two oldest players at the Presidents Cup, were paired together in the fifth game against Stephen Leaney and Robert Allenby.

The two Americans are a combined 96 years old -- the oldest pairing ever in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup -- but they walk and talk like PGA Tour rookies.

''It's a real good fit. We've got canes,'' Funk said.

Funk is one of the straightest drivers in golf, and Haas was egging him on during the practice round. He told Funk the best line off the tee at No. 16, stepped away and said, ''C'mon, hit a fairway for once, will you?''

DiMarco, 35, appeared to be all set to make the Ryder Cup team until David Toms bumped him out by winning the 2001 PGA Championship. He was passed over a captain's pick, and blamed only himself.

''It really put a fire in me, not making that team,'' DiMarco said. ''Coming that close, I wanted to make the (Presidents Cup) team so there not be a choice again. It certainly exceeded my expectations about how awesome it is to be part of this.''

Howell should get an eye-opening experience. Not only is the Presidents Cup his first cup, he will play in the sixth and final alternate-shot match Thursday with Woods.

Woods requested Howell as a partner, and how long they stick together might depend on their performance over the first few days.

Like the rest of the Americans, Howell and Woods played a few holes of alternate shot, a format he had never played.

''With another professional,'' Howell clarified. ''We played four holes yesterday, and that was the first time. But I played with Tiger, so that's not really professional. That's a god. I played alternate shot with a god.''

Woods is just another American player, trying to win back the cup. Woods, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and other veterans have some new help in South Africa.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press