‘Anybody but Tiger’: Why this ill-fated decision still gnaws at Ernie Els
The Presidents Cup may not electrify the golf world with as much wattage as its older cousin, the Ryder Cup, but make no mistake: the 12 players and their captains on the perennially overmatched International side still emit every bit as much competitive energy as Team Europe does at the Ryder Cup.
The Internationals’ desire to win may, in fact, burn even hotter, given over 14 editions of the biannual event they’ve won just once, at Royal Melbourne in 1998, and tied on one other occasion, in South Africa in 2003. The chance to be part of the first team to snap that winless streak? It’d be a career moment, for players and captains alike.
Ask Ernie Els, who played on eight Presidents Cup teams and captained one more, at Royal Melbourne in 2019. As a player, Els was committed, but as a captain? He poured himself into the role. When deciding his captain’s picks and pairings, he leaned harder on analytics than any of his predecessors; he commissioned a team crest that helped bond his team of disparate nationalities; on a course with which he was intimately familiar, he told his players where and how to hit shots. (“I think if you give him a club in his hand, he’ll hit the shot for you,” Louis Oosthuizen joked at the time. “He’s so into this week.”) He exhausted himself.
“I felt I could not do more,” Els said this week from the PGA Tour Champions’ Furyk & Friends event. “I really felt tired after that week.”
For a while it looked like Els’ dedication and attention to detail was going to pay off against a loaded U.S. team helmed by playing-captain Tiger Woods. Through four of five sessions, the Internationals had built a commanding four-point lead. All that stood between them and unlikely glory were 12 singles matches.
Alas, the Internationals couldn’t hold on. On Sunday, the U.S. won half of the matches and tied three more to secure a 16-14 victory.
For Els, any regrets or missteps? Just one, he said.
“I just should have put somebody else against Tiger,” he said.
The somebody he did choose was Abraham Ancer. It was dream match-up for the Mexican star, who in the lead-up to the event had been quoted as saying he wanted a piece of Woods. (Ancer later said his sentiment was taken out of context; he just wanted the chance to play against his childhood hero.)
Ancer had played beautifully all week, collecting 3.5 points in the first four sessions. But he also was losing steam (four matches will do that to a player), which is no way to face the fiercest competitor the game has ever known. Analytics also suggested that Woods was a less-than-optimal opponent for Ancer — and Els knew it.
“I could have played him [against] anybody but Tiger,” Els said this week.
But Els didn’t.
Woods made seven birdies and needed only 16 holes to dispatch Ancer, 3 and 2. The U.S. was off and running.
Like an angler who had a big one on the line but let it slip away, Els knows how close he was to beating the big, bad Americans in Melbourne, and he’s had a hard time letting it go.
“That will burn me for a long time,” he said. “We had it over the line, we really did, and just—”
Here Els paused his thought and shared one other episode from that Presidents Cup that he wishes had unfolded differently.
“After the press conference on Saturday, we had some issue, whatever, and I … kind of stood up for my guys, and the guys really enjoyed what I said,” Els said.
A captain going to bat for his squad.
“I walked into the [team room], there was this big cheer almost like they’re celebrating something. They were just saying thank you for what you did for us, you really stood with us.
“On our way back I said to them, ‘Guys, tomorrow’s going to be the hardest day you’ve ever had in your life — you don’t even think about winning now, we’ve got still a big session left.’ I just feel that they, doing that big cheer for me coming in was great, but I would really have enjoyed it on Sunday, you know what I mean? Sunday would have been great.
“I was never like that. You don’t celebrate until the job’s done, until you’re finished, done, got the trophy. Then I’ll party for a week with you, I will, and I have. But get it done. That still burns me.”
The next Presidents Cup, in September, visits Royal Montreal, where Mike Weir will try to pick up where Els left off.