MELBOURNE — Every two years, with the start of each new Presidents Cup, we hear about the cultural obstacles facing the International team. Their players hail from a million countries, five continents, and they don’t even share a common language in every case. Even getting them together once in the lead-up to the competition is tough—building chemistry looks like an insoluble problem.
Unlike any captain before him, Ernie Els set himself the challenge of cracking this Rubik’s Cube, and after two days, if you believe his players and the scoreboard, it looks like he’s doing a shockingly good job. But if his task was hard, remember that he’s armed with reputation, money and the power to compel his players to meet him halfway. It doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it doable.
Now, consider this challenge: How do you get people to root for this team?
How do you get Aussies and South Africans and Canadians and Japanese and Mexicans to care whether the International team beats the Americans? There are steps the governing bodies can take to promote a kind of fandom, but it’s not necessarily believable or attractive. The answer to this problem is a grassroots movement, but a grassroots movement requires actual belief.
Which brings us to Friday morning at Royal Melbourne. Standing on the first tee, I looked up and saw a group of about 10 men chanting in the upper rows of the stands. It was an impressive chant, fierce and booming, the kind you can tell has its provenance outside golf. They were big dudes, rugby-looking men, men who looked like they knew their way around a sports ground, if not a sports bar. In other words, they looked like real fans. I heard the word “Ernie,” but the rest was unintelligible, so I made my way to a gaggle of International wives and girlfriends for some help. They translated the message for me:
“Ernie, jou lekker ding.”
The language was Afrikaans, and it roughly translates to “Ernie, you lovely thing!” (Though if you say it to a member of the opposite sex, you would apparently be calling them “sexy” or a “hottie,” so use caution.)
Ernie heard it, looked up and broke into a smile of pure delight. He raised both hands to them, and they broke out in cheers—both sides thrilled with the brief interaction.
I had to see this rare breed of “authentic” International fan, so I made my way to the bleachers and introduced myself. They all wore bright green bushman’s hats adorned with a leaping springbok—the symbol of the World Cup-winning national rugby team—above khaki beige-and-green shirts. They were friendly and robust. The Heinekens were already flowing, and they pointed me down the steps to their leader, a man named Bertu Nel.
Bertu and his boys were all South African, hailing from Mossel Bay and Albertinia in the Western Cape Province where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. They had thick accents like Louis Oosthuizen, which makes sense because Oosthuizen comes from Mossel Bay. Bertu’s gang numbered 11, and they were friends from way back. Golf wasn’t their only love, of course. They followed cricket and rugby all over the world, and were still thrilled at the Springboks World Cup victory. When they found out the Presidents Cup would be at Royal Melbourne, the site of the only previous International victory in 1998, they made the choice to go en masse, partly because they wanted to see the golf and partly because they felt that the prior win meant there would be a real chance for celebration.
But it wasn’t just partying and a love of golf that drew them. Bertu in particular had a sense of how important this Cup would be.
“I think what happens this week determines the future of the Presidents Cup,” he said. “If they lose again, I think it’s going to dwindle down, so there’s a lot at stake in this particular one. I think the team knows it as well, that they must win this week.”
And he understood his role as well, and the role of his 10 friends.
“I think the support matters, and I think it’s really strong here. Ernie’s really good at that. Ever since the practice rounds, he’s been getting involved with the crowd and getting the support for the International side, and that’s important for them. The Americans play all year round, so they have more a team spirit, but here it’s a lot of nationalities you put together and hope they gel into a team in a very short time. So I think our support is needed for them."
I asked if they mostly drank Heineken, the ubiquitous beer of the Presidents Cup, and suddenly I had 10 men shouting at me in unison. My head spun as I tried to make out what they were saying. Finally one of them yelled at me slow enough for the message to come through:
“That’s what you drink off the course?” I asked.
“Sometimes under clothes!” another of the rugby giants shouted at me.
And we began shouting at each other anew as I attempted to ask them if they were sneaking in brandy beneath their shirts, or just what they meant. There was no resolution, and it was only later, listening to my recording of the interview, that I realized they weren’t saying “sometimes under clothes!” but “sometimes on the course!”
Then I dared ask what they thought of the American fans and their songs, and they erupted again, this time in boisterous disdain.
“They’re quiet! We have four points and them just one! They’re going to be more quiet today!”
They’ve chatted to Ernie on a daily basis, which is no surprise. In several press conferences, Els has emphasized the importance of crowd involvement. He took the opportunity after Thursday’s round to lecture the crowds and implore them to be louder. He loved Bertu’s boys, though, thanking them for their support and urging them to “keep shouting, keep supporting, go crazy!”
I asked Els after Friday’s matches about the importance of an emerging fan culture for the International Team, and he thanked me for the question. He didn’t quite answer it, unfortunately, but his emphasis on crowd behavior is probably answer enough.
“We want to have a home game, and this is a home game for us. Although we’ve nine different regions representing our team, this is our home game. So we want the fan support,” he said, adding that the fans are “learning as they go along.”
Of course, this is an uphill battle, and Bertu and his 10 South African mates aren’t representative of the larger crowd. Most of the fans I saw seemed only casually interested unless something dramatic happened on a stadium hole, and we’re not approaching a Ryder Cup atmosphere here yet. But the fact that any of them exist—that Bertu Nel came to Australia at all—shows there’s a germ of something that could grow if the team wins.
At some point before Friday’s first tee shots, the Fanatics led a sing-along of the Australian bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda.” It was strangely affecting, and I looked up to see Bertu and company singing along. It only occurred to me later, walking down the first fairway, that these diehard South African rugby fans had been eagerly singing an iconic Australian song. A few holes later, I caught one of them.
“Was that painful for you, singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’?”
He laughed. “Normally yes. But not this week.”