Who will Ernie choose?: Handicapping the favorites for the International Presidents Cup captain's picks
On Wednesday, we looked at who Tiger Woods might choose as his four captain’s picks for the U.S. Presidents Cup team. As we approach the Nov. 4 deadline, when all four picks from both teams will be revealed, it’s time to turn our attention to Ernie Els and the International team. Like Tiger, Els has a couple no-doubt picks followed by some real ambiguity. Let’s take a look at (almost) everyone who has been mentioned by the captain or media as a potential pick, and assess their likelihood of making the team that heads to Royal Melbourne in December.
Automatic International team selections: Marc Leishman, Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Abraham Ancer, Li Haotong, Pan Cheng-tsung, Cameron Smith
Jason Day: 100 percent
Day finished ninth in the final points standings, with the top eight becoming automatic picks. Considering the fact that the Cup will be played in his home country, Day joining the team is a lock. How do I know? Well, Els told us. “You might have a debate for one or two of the [potential captain’s picks] but I think there are two guys who are pretty obvious,” Els said. Day is the most obvious. As for the other?
Sungjae Im: 99.99 percent
The reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year was 11th in points during the qualifying period but has easily the most impressive résumé of those in need of Els’ generosity. And since finishing the 2018-’19 season at the Tour Championship, Im has finished second in a playoff at the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Championship and won the Genesis Championship in South Korea. I’m only docking Im .01 percentage points because he’s not Australian, but, again, Els has all but told us Im’s on the team. And in fact, there are no other South Korean players who qualified automatically, so his nationality gives him an extra boost, even if he didn’t really need it.
Adam Hadwin: 62.9 percent
Again, nationality matters for the Internationals, and Hadwin is a logical pick as the best Canadian on a team with no automatic qualifiers from our northern neighbors. He’s also impressed this fall, with a T-4 at the Shriners and a solo second at the Safeway. Els has mentioned Hadwin by name, and he now looks likelier than ever. Hadwin is also a veteran—he managed a half point against Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed in 2017—and that’s a precious commodity on a team stocked with rookies. Hard not to see him get the nod.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Byeong-Hun An: 54.7 percent
As far back as August, Els said An was on his “favorite list” and thought his game was well suited for Australia’s sandbelt: “He’s one of the supreme ball-strikers around the world, which I really love and which you need to do in Melbourne.” It’s also important that An is Korean—if Im is an automatic pick, there’s a good chance Els will want a countryman he can pair with the Presidents Cup rookie. It’s something the Americans don’t have to worry about, but a shared language is a big deal for the International squad. An’s form is good enough—he’s missed two cuts recently, but he finished third at the Sanderson this fall.
Jazz Janewattananond: 43.5 percent
This was absolutely the trickiest guy to handicap. Jazz (I hope you’ll forgive me for sticking with the first name) finished 10th on the points list, just behind Day, and he’s put up a couple strong finishes in the past three weeks, with a T-4 and a solo fourth in Japan. The Thai native put himself on the “lets discuss” list with two Asian Tour wins and a 14th at the PGA Championship at Bethpage, and he’d give Els a golfer from Southeast Asia. He should have a chance here … so why do I feel like he doesn’t, and that this percentage is too high? Maybe it’s because Els hasn’t mentioned him extensively, and maybe it’s because he’s a rookie, and maybe it’s because he’d be on his own, language-wise. In any case, he deserves at least a coin-flip chance, but I have a feeling he’s not truly in consideration. That said, he’s in both the CJ Cup and the WGC-HSBC, so he has every chance to play his way on.
Shugo Imahira: 37.4 percent
Imahira has played well in the fall, with a string of six top-10 finishes on the Japanese Tour and a win last weekend at the Japanese Bridgestone Open. Like An, he could be a helpful second player from a specific country, in this case Japan (a Matsuyama partnership has to look alluring to Els). The problem is, Imahira doesn’t quite have An’s resume, and there just aren’t enough spots to go around. Still, if he keeps lighting it up, Els might be forced to consider him more seriously.
Joaquin Niemann: 34.3 percent
Is it enough that Niemann won The Greenbrier? A month ago, Els said that he had left the “fringe” and moved into prime consideration, but that also seemed to imply that Niemann needed to show more. Since then, Niemann has gone T-54, MC. A PGA Tour win is hugely valuable, no doubt about it, but Niemann probably has to do more to push himself over the line. He’ll have his chance this week at the CJ Cup.
Sebastian Munoz: 22.6 percent
See “Niemann, Joaquin,” but with a lower World Ranking (Niemann is 54th, Munoz is 113th). The Colombian needs to finish with a bang to have any chance.
Branden Grace: 12.9 percent
He shouldn’t make the team on form, but Els has mentioned him over and over and over, in every interview I’ve read, as a guy with experience. Grace is 6-6-2 all-time in three Presidents Cups, which on the International Team is basically like going undefeated. It’s clear Els wants any excuse to pick him, but Grace is giving him nothing, with nothing but missed cuts and low finishes since the summer. European Ryder Cup captains have picked similar players on hunches (Sergio Garcia in 2018) and looked like geniuses. Could Els be drawing from this playbook?
Justin Harding: 9.8 percent
He’s a fellow South African, but it’s doubtful that Els’ sense of national solidarity extends that far, especially considering that Louis Oosthuizen is already on the team. Harding just hasn’t been good enough—since the U.S. Open, he’s only six for 12 in made cuts, with just two top-10 finishes. There are better options out there.
Si Woo Kim: 6.8 percent
He’s simply not doing enough to earn the “second potential Korean” designation after Im. He has “experience,” in the sense that he’s done this once before, in 2017, but with a 1-2 finish that year I can’t see this enticing Els.
Jhonattan Vegas, Kiradech Aphibarnrat: 3.2 percent
Older, more decorated guys who Els could really use, but who just haven’t shown him even a brief spark on the course.
Corey Conners: 2.4 percent
As Brian Wacker recently reported, Conners really wants to be on the team, and though Els surely respects his passion, the fact is that his form hasn’t been great, and he’s only the second-best Canadian. Barring some major fireworks these next two weeks, he’s out.
Emiliano Grillo: 1.9 percent
With an 0-3 record in his only other appearance (2017), Grillo combines “bad experience” with a very unremarkable summer and fall résumé. Barring a Billy Horschel-in-the-2014-FedEx-Cup type run over the next three weeks, there’s no chance.
Ernie Els: 0.01 percent
In August, Els said he didn’t want to put himself “100 percent out,” and apparently Adam Scott kept telling him to consider himself for a pick. Els' appearances since then have been not good, and this is absolutely not going to happen, but I’m respecting the captain’s math.
In summary: If you’re keeping track, I’ve got Day and Im as automatics, Hadwin and An as my next two, and Jazz and/or Imahira and/or Niemann just on the outside, with some possibility of movement this weekend and next in Asia.