Asian Stars Aligning
by Chuah Choo Chiang / Images: Getty Images
Like his predecessor, Trevor Immelman, the new International Team captain, believes the stars from Asia can align in perfect symmetry as he begins to plot against history and an all-conquering United States Team at next year’s Presidents Cup.
As the youngest captain to be appointed – Immelman will be 41 when Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina hosts the prestigious team competition – the affable South African will be armed with some great insights of his men most likely to go into battle and seek a long-awaited International victory.
In December last year, his mentor, Ernie Els, nearly caused one of the greatest sporting upsets at Royal Melbourne where his thoughtful and meticulous approach saw the Internationals lead into the final day for the first time since 2003.
Els introduced a new team culture, passion and logo to unify a side made up of so many different countries and regions, and despite losing 16-14 following a spirited final day fightback led by American playing captain Tiger Woods, a new spirit was born which Immelman believes will see the International Team carry the momentum to Quail Hollow.
Asia was well represented in the last International Team with Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, Korean duo Byeong Hun An and Sungjae Im, Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan and Haotong Li of Mainland China featuring prominently. With the exception of Li who was kept off the scoreboard, the others contributed a massive 10 points for the team, with 21 year-old Im emerging as one of the heroes with 3.5 points from his five matches.
A veteran of four Presidents Cups, Matsuyama, 28, duly delivered 2.5 points, debutants Pan and An put up two points each, while Li, the first Mainland Chinese golfer to qualify for the Cup, fell in both his matches.
Immelman, who played in the 2005 and 2007 editions, knows the significance that Asia will bring to the International Team’s quest for redemption and glory. The International’s lone victory in the series dates back to 1998.
“The Asian players have always been a very, very important part of our team makeup and they will continue to be so,” said Immelman during the announcement of his captaincy in April.
“You look at the history going back with (Shigeki) Maruyama and (Joe) Ozaki and so many other great Asian players, K.J. (Choi) included, we’ve had a number of Asian players on our team (last year), and they performed brilliantly.
It really was a close-knit team…I was impressed. You just have to look at the young rookies, a man in his early 20s, Sungjae Im; the way he performed, it was so much fun to see. And then when it mattered, he went out against these players and performed brilliantly, and then you look at his form subsequently and at The Honda Classic, just so, so impressive.”
Such was Im’s impact and brilliance which included a 4&3 win over U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in Singles that Immelman predicted the young Korean will go on to become one of the game’s great players.
“Sungjae has a unique personality trait where he is incredibly humble, but he has a lot of inner self-belief. For me, those have always been my favourite kinds of athletes to watch and I enjoy seeing how they perform because you know they're going to have so much respect for the competition, for the opponent, for everything that is taking place around them. But when it comes down to that point in time where they really need to perform, they have the self-belief to be able to back themselves and pull it off. I see that in Sungjae so far in his young career, and I do honestly believe that he has an opportunity to become one of the greatest golfers in the world.”
Having competed across Asia throughout his career, Immelman is also keeping an eye out for new talents from further afield other than those who compete regularly on the PGA TOUR. One such young star who has caught his attention is Thailand’s 24-year-old Jazz Janewattananond, who won four times on the Asian Tour last season and currently sits in 39th position on the Official World Golf Ranking.
“You look at a guy like Jazz, who has climbed his way into the top 50 and is playing some beautiful golf in his own right. He and a number of other guys…you look at Haotong Li, C.T. Pan and Ben An…we can go down the list of great Asian players who really are starting to make their mark in the world of golf,” said Immelman.
Other Asians who may well be on Immelman’s radar include China’s Xinjun Zhang, who is enjoying a second stint on the PGA TOUR this season, and Korean Si Woo Kim, who featured in the 2017 edition, which was the year he won THE PLAYERS Championship.
The new captain also paid a glowing tribute to Els, whose tactics included the use of data and analytics for his Four-Ball and Foursomes pairings which proved highly effective as the Internationals won both Four-Ball sessions, tied one and lost one in the Foursomes sessions.
“You know, to be able to try to continue Ernie's legacy that he has built for our team, the platform that he has created for us to try and build from is something that I'm really looking forward to, and I know that the whole team that competed in 2019 and everybody that was involved with that International Team is also looking forward to the opportunity to have another crack at it in '21 at Quail Hollow,” said Immelman.
“We had an amazing chemistry in our team room down in Australia, and I'm sure everybody could see that and feel that. And it translated onto the golf course, where our guys really did compete as one unit, and we came so close to almost causing one of the biggest upsets that I can think of in sports, when you look at the differences in the World Ranking. I think what Ernie did for our team, giving us something to build off of, we sure are hoping that that is going to be some kind of turning point for the team to where we can find a way to finally win this Cup again.”
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is Senior Director, Communication of the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur.