Els' Potential Asian Aces
by Chuah Choo Chiang
Images: Getty Images
Ernie Els, captain of the International Team for the Presidents Cup, has seen it all throughout a stellar career spanning over three decades and delivering a staggering 71 professional victories across the globe.
If there is anyone in the game who can truly say "been there, done that", it would be the towering World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els, who will lead 12 of the best International Team golfers in search of a rare victory over the all-powering United States Team at The Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Australia from December 9-15.
Delivering a Presidents Cup victory in his first stint as Team Captain would be the jewel in the crown for Els as the International Team has won the prestigious event only once previously in 1998, coincidentally at Royal Melbourne, since the event's inception in 1994.
Undoubtedly, the South African legend will count on local heroes Adam Scott, Marc Leishman and rookie Cameron Smith, to rally the Australian crowds and put the points on the board, but Els' trump cards could well be in the three Asians who qualified amongst the top-8 for his team. With Els poised to name four more picks in early November, there is hope that another Asian star might get the nod to make the trip to Melbourne.
Amongst the current trio, Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama has the most Presidents Cup experience. At 27, the five-time PGA Tour winner is already a battle-hardened veteran with three previous appearances.
Then in debutants Li Haotong of China and Chinese Taipei's C.T. Pan, Els knows he has two potential aces up his sleeves. Li, 23, is a two-time European Tour winner and loves a head-to-head fight as shown in his wins over Rory McIlroy in Dubai last year and match-play victories over World No. 1 Brooks Koepka and Ryder Cup star Alex Noren at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. He also went toe-to-toe with Dustin Johnson in Saudi Arabia, and despite finishing second, he didn’t bat an eyelid during the final day duel.
Pan, 27, steps into the Royal Melbourne cauldron as a PGA Tour Champion following a career-breakthrough title at the RBC Heritage. Although he will be a rookie at the Presidents Cup, the slightly built Pan has enjoyed some success at Royal Melbourne previously where he finished T5 in the 2014 Asia Pacific Amateur Championship and played in all four rounds at the Australian Masters during the previous year.
Els has shown he has every confidence in his Asian brigade. Since watching Li's incredible final round of 63 at Royal Birkdale up close, which helped the young Chinese finish third at the 2017 Open Championship, he has become a big fan and even predicted that Li could become World No. 1.
"He's a strong player…he's got a great game. He's got all the qualities of a world-class player and may become No. 1 in the world one day. He's that kind of talent," said an effusive Els.
"He's got so much potential going forward; I like his style of play, and he'll be great in the team environment. He's quite a lively character, and he's pretty outspoken in a positive way; I am really excited to have him on the team."
Li, the first Chinese golfer to feature in the Presidents Cup, is fired up and wants to be on the winning side at his first crack. Els also believes that Li's presence will generate unprecedented support from Chinese fans and viewers from the world's most populous nation. "It's my great honour to be part of the team," said Li. "Hopefully I can get some points. I'm very excited. To be fair, our team is not as strong as the U.S. Team, so I just want us to play our best and hopefully, beat them."
Els has played alongside Matsuyama often enough to fully back the Japanese strongman to deliver the goods despite a 4-6-3 career record for the International Team. "He hasn’t been on a winning team, so I can see him being very keen to win. He's had a few run-ins with the U.S. Team, so he'll be ready to fight," said Els.
Pan caught Els' attention with his RBC Heritage win, and after qualifying as the seventh ranked player amongst the top 8, the Captain reckons the first-timer from Chinese Taipei could deliver a surprise to the Americans. "What a win he had! Overall, he's got a very sound game; he manages his game very well. He's a good putter, and he does all things well. As a rookie and a person from Chinese Taipei, it's a big deal."
For Pan, a return to Royal Melbourne is inspiring as Chinese Taipei produced one of the most stunning victories in the World Cup of Golf at the iconic Sandbelt venue in 1972 through the legendary Hsieh Min-Nan and Lu Liang-huan.
"It's really cool, a very interesting coincidence," said Pan. "It would be great to replay that history and make it happen again, being the first Chinese Taipei player in the Presidents Cup. It's good to have the chance to try and be on the winning team."
Els plans to use the new blood - Abraham Ancer will also become the first Mexican to play in the Presidents Cup - as a catalyst to drive the International Team to a famous victory and also build for the future.
"I think it is so important for these players that come from such different regions - Chinese Taipei, China and Mexico. These players haven't been represented in the Presidents Cup, and for the first time they're in, and this is just great stuff," said Els.
"I mean, can you imagine all the people that are going to be tuning in to the Presidents Cup? It's just a whole world that's going to be watching us for the first time. For what Mexico has done in golf, China has done for golf throughout the years, with the PGA Tour going there and so forth, the growth of the game is just going to be staggering."
Chuah Choo Chiang is Senior Director, Communications of the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia