MELBOURNE — Tiger Woods grinned and nodded knowingly after Ernie Els, after a long and glowing assessment of his rival’s career, ended by saying, “All that being said, you know, we’d like to kick their asses this week here at home.”
And so the first press conference at this week’s Presidents Cup finally hit at the heart of this whole exercise. No one has finished second to Woods more times than Els—seven in all, including four in majors—so naturally Els, the captain of the International team at Royal Melbourne, would love to go one up on Woods, the U.S. playing captain, in at least one capacity in their storied careers.
It won’t be easy.
With only two players among the top 25 in the world, compared to all 12 Americans, and seven rookies, the International team is a decided underdog in a series in which it has been dogged throughout, save for a lone victory in 1998 at this same venue.
“I think our strength is that we are a very deep team,” said Woods, a few weeks shy of 44, stating the obvious while assessing the matchup for the 13th edition of this match, which the U.S. leads 10-1-1.
No one present on the International team but Els was on that squad that whipped the Americans by nine points in 1998, but perhaps the Big Easy’s memory of that week can serve a useful purpose in getting his team ready. Els went 3-1 for the International team, with his only loss coming in the first session when he and Vijay Singh lost in foursomes to—get ready for it—Woods and Fred Couples, 5 and 4. Els also holds the course record, a 12-under-par 60 from the 2004 Heineken Classic. This week the composite course at Royal Melbourne is par 71.
“I'm kind of the only survivor from that winning team,” Els, 50, said with a laugh. “That was a wonderful time. I still remember that very clearly, how the guys played, the team spirit we had that week. How they individually stood tall. You know, a lot of players back then even, the world never really heard of them, in [Shigeki] Maruyama and Greg Turner and even Craig Parry for that matter, and these people stood up. So yeah, from that point of view, we talked about that. You know, we are doing this thing as a team. I've got a young team and so forth, as we did back in '98, and at the end of the day, it's 18 holes of match play. We've seen what can happen.”
Woods by the way, ended up 2-3 that week and has admitted that he and his American teammates just weren’t prepared. He isn’t about to let that happen again, which is why every team member but Dustin Johnson, who took another week off to rehab from knee surgery, competed in Woods’ Hero World Challenge. He balked at thinking of his team as favorites or believing in the pre-tournament press clippings.
“For us, there are no press clippings,” he said. “That's very simple. Each and every Cup, each and every tournament we play in around the world starts out at zero, and this one is the same. So nothing changes.”
There were plenty of questions Monday about Patrick Reed, a captain’s pick by Woods, who was assessed a two-stroke penalty at the Hero when cameras caught him displacing sand behind his ball in a waste area during the Friday’s third round. Reed maintained it wasn't intentional. Woods mostly demurred on the subject and did not expect the Melbourne fans to act inappropriately when Reed competes.
Els also wanted to put the matter behind him, although he acknowledged that a few of his team members have weighed in with criticism. “These guys are competitors,” he said. “Obviously they didn’t like what they saw, and they came out and obviously you guys asked them questions about it, and they were pretty new questions, and like Tiger, we’re moving on. We've got a Cup to play for.”
On Monday, Woods took a one-up advantage in a kick-off event at the Crown Riverwalk downtown. Woods, Els and two players from each side, plus a few celebrities, hit 75-yard wedge shots toward a floating target in the Yarra River. The U.S. won, even though Woods splashed both his shots short into the water. “I’m a little slow,” he said with a shrug.
As the second playing captain in the history of the event, after Hale Irwin in the inaugural edition in 1994, Woods will have to make sure he’s up to speed as a player while also getting the other 11 participants ready for a tough examination.
Els knows Woods will be ready. That it’s Woods standing in the way as he takes the helm for the first time seems appropriate.
“He's not a bad golfer, you know what I mean? He's one of the best, the best of my generation,” Els said. “It was a privilege to compete against him. I know I would have had a couple more events under my belt, but still very proud to have played with and against Tiger, and after all these years, to be friends with him is another privilege. It's been a long ride. A lot of tournaments come through my mind now where I've came close and lost to him, but there was a couple where I got him, you know, here and there.”
Maybe a win will make up for some of those times Els came up short. He’s committed as a leader after playing for the Internationals eight times, one shy of Adam Scott, who this week will pass him with his ninth appearance.
“I've played under numerous captains, great captains. I'm drawing from what I've learned from them,” Els said. “I'm drawing from the players that I played with in all those years, and just giving them what I know, you know. I'm just being me. I know the golf course quite well, so I've given them quite a bit of information there. And maybe they listen to me, you never know. That would be nice.
“But I've got a great young team. I've got some experienced players. You know, guys are naturally just standing up, guys who are quite comfortable to speak, and I like that. I like the spirit we have this week.”
Now if he can just exorcise the spirit of Tiger Woods.