All the right moves: Why International captain Ernie Els has been essential to his team’s success

December 13, 2019

MELBOURNE, Australia – Leaders are often forced to make difficult decisions. Ernie Els knew that 18 months ago when he accepted the role as International captain for the 2019 Presidents Cup. The first round of tough decisions came in November when the four-time major winner made his four captain’s picks.

The next move? Even harder. Sit out Australia’s Cameron Smith in the first session of his debut Presidents Cup — in front of his home crowd.

“It would have been hard to leave Cam out, for sure,” International stalwart Marc Leishman told GOLF.com Friday.

The Smith omission was a bold move considering Els was watching in the galleries at nearby Metropolitan Golf Club last year when Smith and Leishman finished second at the World Cup of Golf — a two-man team event that uses the same format as the Presidents Cup. On Thursday, the choice to not send out all three Australian players in the first four-ball session was also gutsy given it would have revved up the home crowds.

But through two days at the biennial event, the scoreboard has justified Els’ methods.

There is still plenty of golf to play. But the underdog Internationals lead a star-studded American team 6.5-3.5. They led all five matches during Friday’s foursomes before three late stumbles knotted Day 2’s score at 2.5-2.5. It’s only the third time in Cup history that the Internationals have led after two sessions.

“I’m sure some people questioned [Els’ decisions], but it’s worked so far,” Leishman said. “He has been a very good leader. Hopefully, it works for the rest of the week.”

Els – who called for sweeping changes to the Cup’s format in the press conference at Liberty National – has another admirer in fellow South African, Louis Oosthuizen.

“We all knew that, as a captain, he’d be 200 percent committed,” Oosthuizen told GOLF.com after he collected his second point at Royal Melbourne. “He has done everything in his power to get this team firing. We knew the type of captain he was going to be; informing us how he wants to do things. He’s done a brilliant job.”

Adds Leishman, “I like that he’s had a plan, he’s believed in it and stuck to it. We believe in his plan and that’s the main thing.”

In previous Cups, pairing countrymen was thought to help the Internationals. Jason Day and Leishman partnered in New Jersey in 2017. Day and Scott, as well as Korean’s Sang-moon Bae and Danny Lee, teamed up in South Korea in 2015.

“He’s done it differently than in the past and I think that’s a good thing,” Leishman said, referring to the Internationals’ woeful 1-1-10 record. “Maybe we needed to? We haven’t been successful other way.”

His analytics-heavy pairing strategy isn’t the only way Els has chartered a different course from his predecessors.

He also has been more hands-on, motoring around Alister MacKenzie’s Royal Melbourne in a cart and advising his charges on strategy for particular holes. As Sungjae Im was sizing up a crucial putt on the 18th green in his foursomes match Friday, Els was stalking him like an overzealous soccer parent. Els’ intimate knowledge of the course has been a boon to his squad. He was part of the Internationals’ only victory in the 25-year history of the tournament, in 1998 at Royal Melbourne. Els also holds the Composite course record here, with the 12-under-par 60 he shot in 2004 (the par has since been reduced by a stroke to 71).

“But it’s mainly with pairings,” Leishman said. “He says, ‘You’re playing with him. You’re hitting off this tee and that’s how it’s going to be.’ There’s no wondering. It’s been awesome.”

The Internationals are in excellent position but still have three big sessions left to play over the next two days to avoid an eighth straight Cup loss. No one is more determined to win than Els, perhaps to get one back on his old rival, Tiger Woods.

Rest assured, Els has a plan for Saturday and Sunday, too.

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