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Presidents Cup 2019: The Internationals need a spark. Can their seven rookies provide it?

December 11, 2019

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MELBOURNE — In its 25-year existence, the Presidents Cup has been less a competition and more a biennial gathering to re-unite the American team with its trophy.

"Everyone on our team knows the history of the Presidents Cup, no doubt," said C.T. Pan, who is making his first Presidents Cup appearance. "It's unavoidable."

Team USA’s record in this event is nothing short of Belichickian: The Americans are 10-1-1 overall, having outscored their often-overmatched opponents, 216-176, over the 12 meetings. They enter this week at Royal Melbourne riding a seven-match winning streak. The last—and only—time the Internationals claimed the Cup, in 1998, two of the rookies on this year’s home team, Joaquin Niemann and Sungjae Im, had yet to celebrate their first birthdays.

“Obviously, the record is not the best,” is how another International rookie, Abraham Ancer, put it. Obviously.

The good news for this year’s International side is the majority of the players aren’t jaded by all that losing. Scar tissue is at a minimum. Only five of the 12 players on this International team have competed in a Presidents Cup before, and none have won it: Adam Scott (0-7-1 in his eight Presidents Cup appearances), Louis Oosthuizen (0-3), Hideki Matusyama (0-3), Marc Leishman (0-3) and Adam Hadwin (0-1). Ernie Els’ side was initially set to be an even six-six split between veterans and rookies until Jason Day pulled out with a persistently bad back and was replaced by a seventh rook, Byeong Hun An.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, perhaps an overhaul in personnel is exactly what the Internationals need to stop the bleeding.

Enter the newcomers: Niemann (representing Chile), Im (South Korea), Ancer (Mexico), An (South Korea), Pan (Taiwan), Cameron Smith (Australia) and Haotong Li (China). They’re a delightfully diverse and extremely youthful bunch, with an average age of 25.14. “I’m not that young,” said An, who at 28 is the fifth-oldest player on the International team. “But I didn’t feel this old. On this team, I’m kind of one of the old ones.”

The trade-off for all the youth is that they’re not a tremendously accomplished group, at least not on the PGA Tour, and especially not compared to their American counterparts. The seven International rookies have combined to win three PGA Tour events and have an average World Ranking of 50.6. In contrast, the five rookies on this American team (Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Tony FInau and Gary Woodland) have a collective 16 tour wins and an average World Ranking of 12.4. Plus, Finau and DeChambeau are hardly rookies at all, having played last year’s Ryder Cup.

Simply put, it’s a mismatch on paper, and the International rookies’ modest pedigree is a big reason Vegas pegs the Americans as nearly 3-to-1 favorites. That’s fine with Els; he sees some similarities between the team he’s captaining and the one he played on in 1998, the one that surprised an American side captained by Jack Nicklaus and headlined by the top four players in the world, including a 22-year-old Tiger Woods, 20½-11½, at Royal Melbourne.

“I’m kind of the only survivor from that winning team from ‘98,” Els said. “I still remember that very clearly, how well the guys played, the team spirit we had that week, how they individually stood tall.

“You know, a lot of players back then, the world never really heard of them. [Shigeki] Maruyama and Greg Turner and Craig Parry, for that matter, and those people stood up … so yeah, from that point of view, we talked about that. You know, we are doing this as a team. I’ve got a young team and so forth, as we did back in ’98.”

The five rookies on the winning ’98 International team—Maruyama, Turner, Carlos Franco, Joe Ozaki and Stuart Appleby—went a combined 11-5-3 that week, paced by Maruyama (5-0-0). They were instrumental to the victory, but it proved to be something of a one-off. The average age of those first-timers was 33.2, and only Appleby went on to play in multiple Presidents Cups after that one.

With a strong showing—not necessarily a win, but a high-intensity, competitive four days—these youngsters can begin to change the mind-set from two decades of toothless performances, of being dominated. This team is playing for this week’s Cup, sure, but these players are also laying the foundation for future Presidents Cups. It starts on the first tee on Thursday with what is sure to be one extremely nervy golf shot.

“There’s a reason I had Rick hit that first tee ball,” said Justin Thomas, referring to his debut Team USA match at the Presidents Cup two years ago. “That first tee shot, at your first team event, is something that’s hard to believe.”

“I would say the most nervous you could be in golf is a team event, on the first tee,” added Webb Simpson. “The Masters is close, but I would say a team event.”

Ancer’s ready for it: “I want to feel the nerves,” he said. “I want to see how I do under the gun.”

So does everyone.