2019 Presidents Cup Preview
Ernie Els already knew that he had a mountain to climb, so imagine how he felt when Jason Day withdrew from the Presidents Cup, further weakening an International team that already looked hopelessly outclassed ahead of taking on the USA in Australia. American captain Tiger Woods has had his own problems, with Brooks Koepka unfit to play and lingering doubts over Dustin Johnson’s fitness.
Johnson withdrew from the Hero World Challenge but insists that he will be fit to play a full part in the match. However, he hasn’t played any competitive golf since finishing last at the Tour Championship and then having surgery on a troublesome knee. Not that Woods will be losing too much sleep. He was able to call upon Rickie Fowler to replace Koepka, and his team also comprises Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau, Gary Woodland, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed and, of course, Woods himself. Between them, they have won 19 majors.
And the International team? Louis Oosthuizen, Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott, Marc Leishman, Ben An, Abraham Ancer, Haotong Li, CT Pan, Cameron Smith, Adam Hadwin, Joaquin Niemann and Sungjae Im. They have won two majors in total. After Day withdrew citing a back injury, Els announced that he would be replaced by An.
“We wish Jason well and hope his back recovers quickly. We were eager to have Jason as part of the team at Royal Melbourne and his experience will be missed,” Els said. “The good news is that there were a number of strong and qualified players available to choose from when I made my captain’s selections. To have someone as steady and talented as Ben An puts us in a great position to succeed. Ben played extremely well this fall and throughout the year and he will fit in nicely on this team.
An’s inclusion means the International Team will now feature two Korean players as 2019 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Sungjae Im is also on the team as one of Els’ picks. During the 2018-19 season, An enjoyed three top-10s and eight top-25 finishes, including third place at the Wyndham Championship in August. He finished 15th on the International Team standings to miss out on automatic selection for the Presidents Cup, but put together a strong case for a captain’s pick by starting the 2019-20 PGA Tour season on a strong note. This included top-10s at the Sanderson Farms Championship (3rd), CJ Cup (tied sixth) and ZoZo Championship (tied eighth). He also finished T14 at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions so at least he heads to Australia in form.
“I’m sorry to hear that Jason has been forced to withdraw from the International Team and I wish him a speedy recovery. It was a huge surprise to receive a call from Ernie who told me that I was in the team,” An said. “It has been a goal of mine all season to be on the International Team and I am honoured to play in my first Presidents Cup. I’m looking forward to joining Ernie and the rest of the team in Melbourne and, more importantly, contribute to the International Team’s goal to win the Cup.”
Unsurprisingly, everybody involved is doing their best to talk up the chances of Els’ team, with Scott insisting that they are good enough to win. What will go in their favour is that they have a young team, most of whom haven’t suffered at the hands of the US in this biennial encounter - a match the Internationals have won on a solitary occasion.
Woods is only the second playing captain in the history of the event, and admits that he is still not quite sure how that is going to work. But he proved at the Hero World Challenge that he is in tremendous form. He will play a minimum of two matches, which means that one of his vice-captains - Fred Couples, Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson - will have to stand in for him while he is competing.
“We’ll have one of them be the captain,” Woods said, “and I’m still waiting for the Tour to tell me when that happens, whether or not – when do I relinquish the captaincy role and officially have someone be the captain? Because the captain’s the only one who can receive and give advice. The vice-captains can receive advice, but they can’t give advice to the players or even caddies. Trying to figure that out.
“And then also, when do I play?” he added. “Still trying to figure that out, too. So, there’s a lot of moving parts to it.”
It is a measure of the strength of Woods’ side that there is no place for the likes of Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Cameron Champ and Kevin Kisner. But this may not be the foregone conclusion everybody expects - including your correspondent. Apart from Johnson’s inactivity, Fowler’s appearance at the Hero at the weekend was his first since the Tour Championship, and DeChambeau arrived in The Bahamas a full 22lb heavier than when we last saw him. He has embarked on a new fitness and diet regime designed to increase his strength and swing speed.
It may also be worth noting that the International team’s only victory in this event came at Royal Melbourne in 1998, when the USA were thrashed 20.5-11.5. In truth, it is difficult to imagine Els’ team repeating that, or anything like it. Several members of his team haven’t even managed victories on the PGA Tour, far less winning majors. And although he has been showing flashes of his very best form recently, Scott’s last victory came almost four years ago, and he continues to struggle with the short stick.
But he is desperate to be part of a winning team. "Last time it was too friendly,” he said, referring to the 2011 Presidents Cup in Melbourne. "Quite bluntly, we want the home-crowd advantage, and I'll be disappointed if they are cheering enthusiastically for Tiger or anyone on the U.S. team.
I'm not saying be a poor sport, but one challenge our team has always had is gaining a home-soil advantage because it's rare that stars like Tiger and DJ (Dustin Johnson) come to Australia (2011) or Korea (2015) where we play these things and the locals are excited to see them as much as anyone on our team,” said Scott, who is making a record ninth appearance in the contest. "But while we appreciate them very much, we don't have to cheer for them.”
So we are in for a good contest then? Possibly. But it is impossible to see any result other than a victory for the USA.
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