Presidents Cup 2019: International team captain Ernie Els pushes the right buttons on Day 1

December 12, 2019
Presidents Cup - Round One

Stan Badz

MELBOURNE — So far, so surprising.

Ernie Els’ much-debated selection system—a statistic-based blueprint also known as analytics that has yet to be explained in any detail—seems to be going according to plan. Make that even better than could have been expected for a team that has lost its last seven matches in the Presidents Cup. Whatever. Up 4-1 with one-sixth of the 30 matches to be played at Royal Melbourne completed, the nonplaying captain of the International team had a justifiably satisfied look on his expressive face before, during and after the give-and-take of pairing the foursomes matches for the second session.

And why not?

For the perennial underdogs in the biennial contest with the United States, the opening five four-balls filled a day of almost unrelenting positives. From the moment three members of the winning International side from 1998 at Royal Melbourne—Greg Turner, Carlos Franco and Craig Parry—chatted to their modern-day successors over breakfast, to the convincing 4-and-3 victory by Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer over Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland in the bottom match, this was a day of much celebration for the home team in Australia.

It is also time to analyze exactly what Els is up to strategically. One thing is immediately noticeable: All five International pairings contained a Presidents Cup veteran and a rookie. This was clearly no accident; the International skipper surely wanted every couple to have at least some experience of the unique atmosphere and pressures inherent in team match-play golf. Playing for the jersey is way different from playing for oneself.

In contrast, American captain Tiger Woods—with six birdies the star of his 4 -and-3 win alongside Justin Thomas in the first match—chose two all-rookie pairs for the opening session. Both matches were lost.

Indeed, other than during their sole Woods-inspired victory, the American pairs spent a total of two holes in the lead. And in the bottom three matches they were never ahead. Not once. As soon as the Internationals asserted any kind of authority, there was never any diminution of their mastery. So for the first time since 2005, the Internationals will enter the second day of a Presidents Cup with a lead. That fact alone only increased the breadth of the Els smile.

“I’ve been so impressed with our team in the way they have embraced the nuances of playing golf around here,” said Adam Scott, with Byeong Hun An a 2-and-1 winner over Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau. “We have the best guy leading us in doing that in Ernie. He’s been fantastic.”

Anyway, perhaps warming to his theme, the International skipper’s choices for the second day foursomes all but followed a now-familiar pattern. Though none of the first-day pairs survived into the very different discipline of foursomes, only one of Friday’s five couplings contains two players, Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im, new to the Presidents Cup.

“The guys played well today in their respective pairings, and tomorrow we’ve got whatever pairings we have,” Els said. “We feel comfortable with them. The guys have practiced this way, so we’re going with that process.”

Hey, if it ain’t broke …