Preparing for Royal Melbourne begins in New Orleans for Ernie Els and his International hopefuls
Ernie Els, the man charged with invigorating the International side for December’s Presidents Cup, could not have been enthralled with the golf he witnessed from some of his potential roster members at the just-completed Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
But, as his counterpart, U.S. captain Tiger Woods, might say, it’s a process.
There were no fewer than a dozen team comprised of international players at the two-man event at TPC Louisiana, won by the odd couple of Jon Rahm of Spain and American Ryan Palmer. And it’s probably not a stretch to say that the behind-the-scenes bonding exercise that Els orchestrated this past week was far more enjoyable and productive than the on-course battering many of his duos sustained.
That includes some of the most prominent pairings such as Jason Day-Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen-Charl Schwartzel, Abraham Ancer-Jhonattan Vegas and Si Woo Kim-Sang Moon Bae. All missed the cut.
“We’ve got a different approach to this year’s Presidents Cup,” Els, 49, said in a pre-tournament press conference with one of his vice-captains, Trevor Immelman, with whom he also was paired in the field. “I’ve been around, Trevor has been around. Being there as a player you know what works, what you like to see. … I'm trying to approach it that way. I’ve got younger assistant captains, I got guys that have been involved in Presidents Cups in the past. I’ve got a good mixture of guys. You know, there is something different going on. Let me put it that way.”
What isn’t different is the ability of international personnel to play foursomes with even modest proficiency. They routinely get destroyed in the format in the Presidents Cup, which largely explains how the U.S. has a 10-1-1 lead in the series overall. The Americans outscored the International team 7-2 in foursomes in their 2017 rout at Liberty National outside of New York, and they haven’t lost a foursomes session since the Internationals eked out a 3½-2½ advantage to open the 2005 matches at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.
Of the four duos mentioned above, only Ancer and Vegas broke par in the Friday’s foursomes format, shooting 70. Meanwhile, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel followed up a heartening 64 in four-ball with a 78 in alternate shot.
Another painful foursomes flop developed in the final round when South African pair Branden Grace and Justin Harding, the latter coming off a surprise T-12 Masters performance, soared to an 80, dropping them from third place to T-32. They had teamed for 68 in the second round.
“Look, I think there’s a positive for me to take away that I’m hitting the ball still very well, and ultimately the foursomes format can be tough,” Scott, who has been one of the more outspoken and frustrated members of the International team, said after he and Day missed the cut by one stroke. “I think a couple of extra missed greens from both Jason and I in that format made a couple bogeys appear that maybe shouldn’t. It’s tough to get the rhythm going, and we were grinding hard and didn’t quite get it going. It wasn’t anything horrible.”
Scott and Day are keen to play together when Royal Melbourne Golf Club hosts the event for the third time. The U.S. under Fred Couples cruised in 2011, while in 1998 the International team scored its lone victory with a nine-point shellacking that, by the way, also came in December.
The Internationals can use all the encouraging omens they can get.
There were bright spots at TPC Louisiana, mostly in the form of individuals who are not necessarily considered favorites to make Els’ 12-man squad. Kyoung Hoon Lee of South Korea finished T-3 with American Matt Every. Canada’s David Hearn and Australia’s Curtis Luck, separately, were among the players finishing T-5. India’s Anirban Lahiri and Shubhankar Sharma ended up T-22 with four sub-par rounds.
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Els wasn’t prepared to put too much stock into this week’s results, noting, “There is a long way to go before the team is actually selected.”
The trip to New Orleans, which Els strongly recommended to any potential team member, was about getting acquainted, something that hadn’t occurred much in previous years. The players all stayed in the same hotel in downtown New Orleans, shared meals and brought ideas to the table.
Els will get four wildcard picks after eight men qualify via a one-year points race (which are changes from previous years), and some likely automatic qualifiers such as Marc Leishman and Hideki Matsuyama were absent. Nevertheless, Els knows he has to bring a fresh approach to the event, which has been as lopsided in favor of the United States as the Ryder Cup once was.
Some hurdles always will confront the Internationals. Immelman noted that as many as 10 countries could be represented among the 12 players who eventually make the team. Cohesion is a commodity in short supply.
“There is a lot of moving parts. Culturally, religiously, I mean, there are a lot of moving parts,” Els said. “It’s quite something when you dig into it. … We’ve been down to Melbourne, been to the hotel, room selection. If you give me half an hour we can keep talking about this. There is a lot of things that really become very, very important. We’re really trying to just cover every angle.”
The International team has not lost a singles session since 2009. They appear to have enough talent. But it’s teamwork that wins these things. That and a sense of unity. (See Europe, Ryder Cup.) Els has started to address that issue. But he needs something more. A rallying cry. A sense of urgency. He wasn't going to find that on the Bayou.