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The Presidents Cup: A Herculean Task for Ernie Els

30 OCT 2019

The International team will go into the matches as a huge underdog and Captain Ernie doesn’t have a lot of choices to make the team stronger.

By Peter Mumford

Sports are full of inspiring stories about an underdog that defeated a heavily favoured opponent.

Think of Joe Namath and the New York Jets against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III; or Buster Douglas versus Mike Tyson; or the Toronto Raptors against the Golden State Warriors. Everybody loves an underdog. And sometimes they even win.

Ernie Els will need that sentiment and a whole lot more if his International Team is to have even a remote chance of beating the Americans in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in December. This is the long shot of long shots.

Both teams have to make their Captain’s picks on November 4th, and it doesn’t look like Els has much to draw on; certainly not enough to overcome the staggering advantage that already rests with the US squad. With the top 8 qualifiers already determined by points, all of the Americans are ranked in the Top 20, according to the Official World Golf Rankings, except Matt Kuchar, who is #21. The highest-ranked player on the International side is Adam Scott at #16 and the rest all reside outside the Top 20.

To make matters even worse, US Captain Tiger Woods will likely add himself (#6), Tony Finau (#14), Gary Woodland (#15) and Rickie Fowler (#20) when he makes his Captain’s picks next week. Els will draw from a collection of internationals that start with Jason Day at #28 and drops all the way down to #64 Justin Harding.

Captain Ernie may have to think outside the box if he’s to pull off an upset. Going with the next four on the Presidents Cup points list would yield an OK group of Australian Jason Day, Koreans Sunjae Im and Byeong Hun An, and Canadian Adam Hadwin. Let’s assume that Day is a lock to make the team in any scenario because of his experience on the PGA Tour and previous international teams, and his familiarity with the golf course. That leaves three additional picks.

It might make sense to keep the two Koreans together, both from a pairs point of view and for fans in Asia. This Presidents Cup will be a huge event for them. Im was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2018 and so far this season has garnered a second-place finish at the Sanderson Farms Championship and a T3 at the Zozo Championship. An, who was the US Amateur champion in 2009, has three Top 10’s this fall. Both would be Presidents Cup rookies.

Alternatively, Els might elect to go with two Canadians. Adam Hadwin experienced international team play on the 2017 Presidents Cup team and is currently 10th on the FedEx Cup list. Since the start of the season, he’s finished 2nd at the Safeway Open and T4 at the Shriners Hospital for Children event in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Corey Conners is trying his best to get the Captain’s attention with his first PGA Tour victory last spring, a FedEx Cup finish inside the Top 30 that gave him a spot at East Lake; and a T13 at Safeway, a T12 at Shriners and a T6 last week at the Zozo Championship.

Els might also opt for Joaquin Niemann who nabbed his first PGA Tour win at the Greenbrier Open in September. As far as we can tell, he would be the first golfer from Chile to play on a Presidents Cup team.

Another first would be adding Jazz Janewattananond (henceforth called Jazz for obvious reasons). Jazz showed his game at the PGA Championship in May, where he finished T14.  The Thai golfer has a number of Top 10’s on the Asian circuit this past year too. Another first, if Jazz is added to the team, is that he may be the only professional golfer to take time away from the sport to join the monkhood, which Jazz did after the conclusion of the 2016 European Tour.

My hunch is that Els will add Day, Im, An and Hadwin. They will join Marc Leishman, Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Haotong Li, C.T. Pan, Abraham Ancer and Cameron Smith. If anyone’s counting nationalities, there will be eight represented: Australia (4), South Korea (2), and one each from Japan, China, Taipei, South Africa, Canada and Mexico.

With six Presidents Cup rookies, the team will certainly be relying on the veteran leadership of Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Day. Whether that’s enough to counter the strong US team remains to be seen but there’s no doubt that the Internationals go into this as the obvious underdog.

The team will need some good underdog inspiration to draw on, such as:

  • The only Presidents Cup win for the Internationals came back in 1998, also at Royal Melbourne. The US team was heavily favoured then too.
  • In 2003, at Fancourt in South Africa, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods played extra holes to determine a winner and when darkness intervened, captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player agreed to call it a draw. Perhaps Els can draw inspiration from that battle with Tiger.
  • Or they can use this old bit of wisdom: “On paper, the Americans are heavily favoured”. And most underdogs will counter with, “Well, golf isn’t played on paper, it’s played on grass, so those predictions don’t mean anything.”

We’ll see.

One final out-of-the-box strategy for Captain Els could be to use his four picks to draft his Assistant Captains. K.J. Choi, Trevor Immelman, Geoff Ogilvy and Mike Weir have some pretty impressive credentials too.

Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag