International Team Begins to Take Shape Ahead of Presidents Cup

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 13: Ernie Els of South Africa is named captain for the International team for the 2019 President's Cup in Melbourne, Australia prior to the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 13, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

Els to blend strong mix of cultures, beliefs in attempt to take down Americans

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – Located in the heart of the French Quarter, steps away from historic Bourbon Street, sits the famed Arnaud’s Restaurant. For more than a century, it has served up classic Creole cuisine to both curious travelers from afar as well as a dedicated local base of French, Spanish, Latino and other international residents.

The establishment, and the diverse melting pot of New Orleans itself, proved a fitting backdrop recently for Presidents Cup Captain Ernie Els and the host of unique candidates trying to earn a coveted spot on his team this year.

“It’s one the hurdles that as a team we have to overcome, when you look at the fact that we can have up to eight or nine different countries that make up the formula for our team,” captain’s assistant Trevor Immelman said. “We’ve got to make sure that we try our best to find a way to meld all these cultures together to where guys really feel comfortable around each other.”

On the surface, dinner and drinks in a culturally rich locale a doesn’t seem like such a novel, out-of-the-box concept. But with six months to go before the latest Presidents Cup, the gathering is but one of a smattering of ideas Els is implementing in order to will the International Team to only its second win in series history.

“He’s done some exciting things and has brought fresh energy to the International Team and what we’re trying to accomplish in beating the Americans,” Canadian Adam Hadwin said. “Him being the international star that he is and being on so many teams, I think he has some ideas to help us finally break through and get another victory.”

HAMILTON, ONTARIO – JUNE 08: Adam Hadwin of Canada looks on during the third round of the RBC Canadian Open at Hamilton Golf and Country Club on June 08, 2019 in Hamilton, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The meal at Arnaud’s the week of the Zurich Classic was another step in the year-long process Els is undertaking to piece together his roster. And there’s much more happening behind the scenes than strictly building relationships.   

“Captain Els is doing a great job to keep everyone on the same page, but we also work on some statistic stuff, something I’m not allowed to talk about,” said C.T. Pan, of Chinese Taipei. “But everyone is on the same page, and I think that’s very important. He’s trying his best to give us a chance to win the Cup.”

At the direction of Els, several international players paired up at the Zurich Classic, which features a unique team format not unlike what they will eventually face at the Presidents Cup. The idea was that early work together would get team hopefuls familiar with both the playing setup and any potential partner.

Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott teamed up, as did Indians Shubhankar Sharma and Anirban Lahiri. Canadians Corey Conners and Mackenzie Hughes were matched together, as well as Koreans Whee Kim, Sungjae Im, Si Woo Kim and Sangmoon Bae. Latin Americans Jhonattan Vegas and Abraham Ancer also participated.

That early-season experience working alongside one another could wind up paying dividends this December at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.

“We’re playing the fourball and the foursomes formats, and those are the two disciplines that we have to get better at going forward with the Presidents Cup,” Els said at the time. “So it’s quite important to see how the guys score, how they perform. It’s very different golf courses, obviously, between the TPC Louisiana and the Royal Melbourne. But it’s playing the format, getting used to playing these different types of golf, and getting used to each other’s company.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 25: Ernie Els, captain of the International Team poses for a selfie photo with prospective members of the 2019 International Team including Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, Anirban Lahiri of India, Kim Si-woo of Korea, Li Haotong of China, Wu Ashun of China, Marc Leishman of Australia, Cameron Smith of Australia, Abraham Ancer of Mexico, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, at the Presidents Cup International Team Reception after day four of the 2018 World Cup of Golf at Royal Melbourne Golf Club on November 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

When play ended, all team hopefuls returned to rest their heads at the same hotel, where mornings and evenings were spent building rapport among players.

Those relationships could prove pivotal for a team that may end up featuring an array of new faces. As of June 1, the top 12 players in the International Team standings included seven players who have never appeared in a Presidents Cup.

Now, whether Els ultimately opts to use his four captains picks on those with little to no experience is another discussion. After all, veteran presence is critical in team events such as this. But that decision won’t be made for several months, when point totals end following the TOUR Championship.

So for now, any debate on potential roster members must be limited strictly to those within the top 12 of the standings (the top eight automatically earn a spot, with Els picking the remaining four).

Some longtime Presidents Cup stalwarts should be considered virtual locks for 2019. Chief among those are Australia’s Marc Leishman, Adam Scott and Jason Day, who have a combined 15 appearances and are all inside the top eight. Those players’ familiarity with Royal Melbourne Golf Course should only help their cases.

“Being back at Royal Melbourne’s going to be awesome,” said Leishman, who won the CIMB Classic in October and leads the standings. “I’ve played three President Cups so far, two in America, one in Korea, so to play one in Melbourne again with all my friends and family there is going to be awesome. Hoping I can continue this form, be a leader on that team. Hopefully we can give the Americans a bit of trouble.”

Those elder statesmen should mix well with a blend of young, rising stars from around the globe. Chief among them are Pan, China’s Haotong Li and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer, all of whom are expected to become the first-ever representatives from their respective countries.

Li, ranked No. 5 in the standings, is still closing in on Special Temporary Membership on the PGA TOUR. But that hasn’t stopped him from dominating the game abroad. The 23-year-old has six top-five finishes internationally since the start of 2018, including a win at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and runner-up finishes at the Turkish Airlines Open and Saudi International powered by SBIA.

“Representing my country means a lot to me, having done it in the Olympics and at the World Cup,” he said. “If I am fortunate and able to play in the Presidents Cup and play for Ernie Els, I would be very happy. I know I’m not representing China at the Presidents Cup, but I would be a Chinese player on the International Team, and I know the people in China would be watching and rooting for me and for the International Team. I would love to play in Australia later this year.”

Pan, meanwhile, sits right behind Li at No. 6. He’s backed by his first career TOUR victory in April at the RBC Heritage, when he grabbed the lead with a birdie at the 16th then held on with pars on the final two holes to outlast Matt Kuchar by a stroke.

It came one year after a gut-wrenching 72nd hole cost him a win at the Wyndham Championship, which he helped deliver to Brandt Snedeker when his tee shot sailed right, hitting the cart path and bouncing out of bounds.

“It definitely changed my perception on the last couple of holes down the stretch of what I should do,” he said. “The last three holes I would say I played really well here, a lot of good shots just because I told myself I need to focus on the details, the little things, and just stay in present. That’s something I didn’t do at Wyndham.”

Pan’s newfound ability to close would be a key asset to Els in his attempts to solve the International Team’s recent struggles.

“It would be my biggest honor to play under Captain Els,” Pan said. “I definitely want to do my part to win the Presidents Cup. And back home in Taiwan, we don’t have a Ryder Cup in Asia. And I just feel it’s kind of unfortunate for the golf fans back home in Asia. And I think the Presidents Cup will be something like that. And it will inspire more kids to play golf or inspire more people to follow golf.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 25: Ernie Els, captain of the International Team speaks at the Presidents Cup International Team Reception after day four of the 2018 World Cup of Golf at Royal Melbourne Golf Club on November 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Ancer is still waiting on his own elusive first win. But he’s come close a few times—he has three top-12 finishes so far this season—and that’s been enough to land him at No. 10 in the standings. He’s just ahead of South Korean’s Sung Kang, who earned his first career win in May at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

A Mexican has never played in the Presidents Cup, and only five Latin Americans in total have ever done it. For Mexico to potentially join the career ranks of Argentina (Angel Cabrera and Emiliano Grillo), Colombia (Camilo Villegas), Paraguay (Carlos Franco) and Venezuela (Jhonattan Vegas) means a great deal to him, he said.

“Playing in the Presidents Cup will be historic for Mexico, and obviously for me it will be a dream come true,” he said. “It’s one of the tournaments and events that you really want to (be part of). I mean, you always dream about it and see it on TV and stuff, and it will be incredible if that happens. That’s definitely one of my goals for this year.”

Every player, from Australia and South Korea to China and Mexico, has a roster spot in mind. The list of varying countries, cultures and beliefs may be vast, but everyone has the same common goal: A chance to beat the Americans in December.  

“The (response) has been awesome. Goosebumps, that’s what we want,” Immelman said. “It’s an incredible achievement to make this team, and to represent our International Team as well as representing your individual country. We’re wanting to create the vibe that it is something that’s extremely special, that you want to achieve in your career. So it’s awesome that guys are starting to feel that way.”

How Els ultimately opts to put those all of these puzzle pieces together is still to be determined.

The world will be watching to see what he decides. The International Team hasn’t won since 1998, and hasn’t tied since 2003, when he and Woods famously dueled into the darkness in South Africa.

The stakes have never been higher.

“We’ve got a different approach to this year’s Presidents Cup,” Els said, coyly. “Being there as a player, you know what works and what you like to see, and those are the kinds of things that I went back to in my mind. What did I like, what did I not like? I’ve got a good mixture of guys.

“You know, there is something different going on. Let me put it that way.”