MELBOURNE — Everyone is saying the same thing, so it must be true. In the run-up to this, the 13th Presidents Cup, non-playing captain Ernie Els has already made a positive difference to the atmosphere within the International squad. It may be the youngest group in the event’s history, but this team drawn from all corners of the globe other than Europe has never before entered the biennial contest with the United States in a more optimistic mood.
All of which is but the culmination of a long-term plan.
“I won’t miss much,” said Els, way back in January when asked about taking on the role as International captain. “I’ll be seeing the guys every couple of weeks. And whenever I have a group of them together at an event, we’ll be having a meeting during the week. I want them to be in no doubt about who I am and what I’m looking for.”
Along the way, the camaraderie has steadily been built. As has the obvious enthusiasm throughout the International camp.
“Ernie keeps telling us we’re the best players in the world,” says Byeong Hun An, a Presidents Cup rookie, one of seven on the International team. “It feels like we are in the same team instead of representing different countries. We are playing for Ernie. We can see how passionate he is and how much he wants to win.”
Similar sentiments are echoing around the International team room.
“From the very beginning, Ernie has taken this on full steam,” says Canada’s Adam Hadwin. “He's all in. Early on, he created our shield and brought us together under one flag. He has given us unity, bringing us together as a team throughout the year. We know each other better through playing practice rounds at events. He’s done everything he can to prepare us for this week. It’s up to us now. But there would be no better way to pay homage to what Ernie has done than to take a victory this week.”
So there is little doubt that this is a team ready to play hard for its captain. “I’m here to do a job for Ernie,” said Cameron Smith, neatly summing up the prevailing mood, one only enhanced by the presence of Tiger Woods, captain of the U.S. squad. Els and Woods go back a ways.
“A win this week would be pretty special for Ernie,” says assistant captain Geoff Ogilvy. “This is a great event, we all love it, but it would be a better event if we won it a few times. The Ryder Cup got so much better when the Europeans started to win it. So, for Ernie, it would be nice to get one over on Tiger. He ran into a buzzsaw in the big tournaments when he was clearly the second-best player during the best patch of Tiger’s career.”
Also adding to the International mix is Els’ intimate knowledge of the Royal Melbourne composite course. The big South African, a veteran of eight Presidents Cups with a record of 20-18-2, won the 2002 Heineken Classic over the spectacular layout many believe to be the best in the southern hemisphere. And he holds the course record, a 12-under-par 60 in 2004. So he knows his way around.
“In certain conditions, the flags here are destinations, not a targets,” says Els, a message he’s relayed to his players. “It’s a lot like Augusta. You just can’t go at a flag sometimes. As a player, it’s almost ingrained in you to go at everything, but here you’ve got to play a little differently. You almost play it like a links course. But it’s in a parkland setting.”
So much for the pre-match planning. The first indications of Els’ ultimate strategy came with the announcement of his opening day four-ball pairings. Not that he was giving much away other than reiterating his wish for vocal support from the predominantly Australian galleries.
“I was kind of rallying the troops a little bit out there,” said the four-time major champion. “There is a lot of excitement for tomorrow. There are enough Australians out there to rally a lot of guys. But we are all one this week—Australians, South Africans, all the Internationals. Hopefully they will support us very nicely and very fairly.”