Ernie Els captains an International team that are considerable underdogs as they take on the USA at Royal Melbourne in December.
Behind that famous, laid-back demeanour, which attaches itself effortlessly to ‘The Big Easy’ tag, there’s a steely, no-compromising character. You don’t win four Majors, 71 tournaments around the world and have 300 top-10 finishes if there’s blood instead of ice running through your veins.
So, when Ernie Els nailed his colours to the International mast there was no room for sentiment. In adding his four captain’s picks to the eight players who had automatically qualified for The Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, he injected some young blood into the squad.
‘I didn’t go looking for Joaquin Niemann who is 20 [subsequently turned 21], or Sungjae Im who is 21, but they made themselves a lock on this team,’ Els said. ‘I definitely wasn’t that good at 20, 21, but these guys are world-class players and they’ve proved themselves. I’m excited by the new blood that’s coming in.’
Els was typically transparent when explaining his captain’s picks in early November. ‘I wanted good driving, good ball striking obviously, but putting is also very important. In my experience in these Cups, it comes down to pressure putting in a lot of instances. Putting is a pivotal attribute that you need, especially in what we play. Putting was very important to me.’
South Africans Erik van Rooyen and Justin Harding, ranked 59 and 65 respectively, might feel they had a big shout of getting a look-in for Els’ captain’s picks. They have both won on the European Tour in 2019 and when you realise, collectively, the International team has only managed three wins this entire year – Sungjae, Neimann and PC Tsung – the South African pair had certainly stuck their hands up for selection.
Instead he opted for world ranking, going for Jason Day (29), Adam Hadwin (44), Sungjae (34) and Niemann (54).
All the statistics, history and form would suggest that the US are going to win for the 11th time in 13 competitions, and indeed when you look at their roster it’s impossible to see anything other than the Stars and Stripes being waved wildly at the closing ceremony.
They have seven of their 12 players nestling in the top 10 of the World Ranking, with their lowest-ranked player being the veteran Matt Kuchar, at No 22, who came in at the expense of Ricky Fowler, which surprised many students of the game. Contrast that to the Internationals, whose highest-ranked player is the Australian Adam Scott, at No 17 when the team was finalised, with their lowest being CT Pan at No 62.
And when it comes to team competitions like the Ryder Cup and The Presidents Cup, South African great Gary Player feels there should be only one winner every time they tee it up. ‘The United States have the greatest player base, they have the courses, the structures, the climate. I’m actually surprised the Europeans are as competitive as they are in the Ryder Cup,’ he said.
But that’s the beauty of sport – and of matchplay golf. The best team on paper does not always win. The most obvious recent example is the Rugby World Cup where, man for man, the Springboks didn’t look capable of beating England in the final but an unshakeable belief in their abilities and team unity helped them lift the trophy.
So, one would assume the Internationals have a puncher’s chance of upsetting the Americans. It would be only their second such success, although they return to the scene of their previous victory, Royal Melbourne, some 21 years after their historic win.
Australians are certainly going to be in for a treat. Tiger Woods is the most recognisable sportsperson on the planet and he can lay strong claims to being the greatest to have graced the game. He also becomes only the second playing captain in the history of the competition, after Hale Irwin fulfilled both roles in 1994.
In announcing his four picks Woods saved himself for last and did so with dramatic effect. ‘As captain, I’m gonna choose Tiger Woods as the last player on the team,’ he said. ‘He’s made, what, nine Cups and he’s played in Australia twice at The Presidents Cup, so this will be his third appearance as a player … I find it interesting I’m talking in the third person!’ Which is when he flashed the brightest, widest smile in sport. ‘I’m just having fun with it. I have dual roles. I had to get the respect of the players and the players wanted me to play at the event. It’s going to be difficult but I have three amazing assistants, so that helps a lot.
‘With the new rules, I just have to play one match before the singles. Two matches minimum. It could be more. It’s about me understanding the guys and understanding the golf course too.’
Those attending the event in Melbourne are going to be watching golfing royalty. Els is one of the world’s most popular sports figures, while Woods is golf’s Pied Piper and has long been credited for making dollar millionaires out of journeymen professionals, given the TV interest when he plays that helps drive up the revenues.
Everything looks tilted in favour of the USA. Only Pan, Sungjae and Niemann have won tournaments in 2019, while the total combined number of victories on the US team in 2019 is 13 – and that includes three of the four Majors, with Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland all contributing. In fact, Americans have won nine of the last 12 Majors and the last member of the International team to win a Major was Day in 2015. Scott (2013) and Louis Oosthuizen (2010) complete the list of Internationals to have won a Major in their careers.
However, Els seems to have gambled on the exuberance of youth to cause an upset in Melbourne. There are six rookies on his squad – the USA have five – and the youngest is Niemann, who turned 21 in November. The former world No 1-ranked amateur is the first Chilean golfer to represent his country at The Presidents Cup after also becoming the first person from his country to win on the PGA Tour with his victory at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier in September.
‘What a great kid. I want to call you kid, you’re my daughter’s age, but you played like a grown man this past season,’ Els said to Niemann during a teleconference. ‘Winning your first event on the PGA Tour as a Chilean player at the Greenbrier, that solidified you in my view. Obviously in 2018, you came out as a young guy and had so many top-10 finishes and didn’t even have to go to the Korn Ferry Tour to get your card, and you automatically got on to the PGA Tour. So I knew you were a special player then and you definitely solidified it since the summer this year.’
However, it’s Oosthuizen who might be Els’ most valuable player during the week. The South African has the best winning percentage on the International team – 56.67 – followed by Hideki Matsuyama and Scott (both 42.31). On the American side, Justin Thomas has a 70% winning rate, followed by Dustin Johnson (64.29) and Woods himself (61.25). Those are more statistics for Els to nail on the International team wall as they attempt to spring an upset.
Gary Player, captain of the Internationals when they tied in the gloom at Fancourt in 2003, believes the USA are strong favourites but he doesn’t rule out a shock.
‘We have not been very successful at The Presidents Cup even though our teams have been as strong as America’s. Maybe one or two years even stronger, but the golf ball doesn’t know that. Peter Thomson won at Royal Melbourne against America way back [in 1998],’ said the 84-year-old. ‘Ernie’s got a hard job. I was captain three times and I tell you, you’ve got to travel all over the world. It’s not an easy job. So let’s hope Ernie’s team prevail … I’m sure he will do a good job.’
Golf’s aficionados will argue that a good job won’t be enough to stop the trend of American victories and it’s going to take something special to wrest the trophy from them. But Els will be telling his team to believe and that sport often throws up fairytales. And should The Big Easy manage to orchestrate a victory over the more-fancied reigning champions, he would have announced himself as not only a great golfer and sporting ambassador, but also a true leader of men.
5 – Matches won in one competition, a record shared by Mark O’Meara (1996), Shigeki Maruyama (1998), Tiger Woods (2009), Jim Furyk (2011) and Branden Grace (2015).
11 – Largest margin of victory, in 2000 when the United States won 21½ to 10½. The smallest victory margin was the one point (16½-15½) win for the USA in 1996, although in 2003 at Fancourt the event famously ended in a tie.
12 – Least number of holes played when the golfers have shaken hands. In 1996 David Frost beat Kenny Perry 7 & 6 and in 2011 Adam Scott and KJ Choi beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker 7 & 6.
20 – Most matches lost, by Adam Scott of the Internationals. Ernis Els lost 18, Robert Allenby and Phil Mickelson 17.
26 – Most matches won, by Phil Mickelson. He’s followed by Tiger Woods on 24 and Ernie Els and Jim Furyk on 20 each.
53 – Appearances by Australians for the Internationals over the years in the competition. Next best is South Africa with 37 followed by Japan with 11.
55 – Most matches played by an individual – Phil Mickelson in 12 appearances. Second on the list are Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, all of whom have played 40 matches.