SUN CITY, SOUTH AFRICA | Both Ernie Els and Pádraig Harrington had their thoughts and conversations consumed with their respective captaincy duties while playing together in last week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge.
Els is fast approaching his debut as captain of the International team against the Tiger Woods-led American squad in next month’s Presidents Cup in Australia, while Harrington is 10 months from captaining Europe against the United States in the Ryder Cup. Both used their time together at Sun City to pick each other’s brains.
Els in particular says he not only has taken inspiration from what the European Ryder Cup teams have been able to achieve in consistently beating the Americans, but he’s even consulted former European Ryder Cup captains.
“On paper we’re nowhere near the US team,” Els acknowledged. “But we’ve seen what the European Ryder Cup teams have done in the past. They’ve got the magic potion so to speak. Watching them dismantle the US team in France was quite something. I have spoken to some of the previous European Ryder Cup captains to get some tips from them, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Similarly, Harrington says he has a vested interest in the outcome of the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.
“I’ll definitely be watching the Presidents Cup,” he said. “Selfishly I really want Ernie’s team to win. I don’t want the US getting any momentum. I looked at Tiger’s picks and I was looking at Gary Woodland and Tony Finau – they’re rookies so they’re getting a run out. I’m thinking if they build some momentum in the Presidents Cup that’s trouble for me in 10 months’ time. So yeah, I’m hoping Ernie and his team give them a good trouncing.”
For Els, the upcoming matches are certainly personal.
In 12 Presidents Cups to date, the Internationals have beaten the Americans only once and had a famous tie at Fancourt in 2003, where Els and Woods were involved in an epic playoff before darkness prompted the decision to declare the tie.
Of the eight Presidents Cups in which Els has played, he’s been on the losing team six times. Then came the 19-11 American rout at Liberty National in 2017, when Els was an assistant captain to Nick Price. It’s starting to hurt. And the big man is not one to take lightly to being pushed around.
“I’m excited,” he said. “We’ve got the team selected now. But that was really tough. Making those four captain’s picks was a really difficult situation for me. I made sure I called those guys that didn’t make it. Some of them are good friends of mine that I really looked at and wanted them to make the team. That was really difficult to do. I’d heard this from other captains that this is the piece of the job none of them really liked to do.
“But we’re set now and I’ve got a nice mixture of players. ... We’ve got some experience in there – Louis Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman, Jason Day, Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama. So I’m really looking forward to them taking a leadership role. And then we’ve got great youngsters in Joaquín Niemann and Sungjae Im. I’m really excited about this team.”
But when it comes to the American team, Els and Harrington raised the one pick that stands out for both of them.
“I really believe you can’t play and captain anymore,” Els said when asked whether he was tempted to pick himself.
Harrington was far more forthright.
“It wouldn’t happen in the Ryder Cup these days,” he said. “My feeling is that by picking himself, they’re saying, ‘We've got this. It’s in the bag.’ ”
For Els, being seemingly written off so early on by the Americans indeed will motivate him and his team.
“I suppose it’s like all of us who’ve played professional golf in that you can only win a tournament if you’re prepared to lose that tournament.”
But he does believe the Royal Melbourne course favours his squad. And he revealed a change he’d like to see in the future.
“It’s the type of course where you have to flight the ball and that’s why my picks were important,” he said. “There are a lot of doglegs there and it could favour us. The US team are very strong with the driver in hand. Unfortunately for us we’re not allowed to set up the golf course when we’re hosting, which is a rule I think we need to change.”
Gary Player, the Nedbank Golf Challenge host who captained Els in that epic showdown of 2003, gave his countryman his full support.
“I think Ernie’s going to be a wonderful captain,” Player said. “He’s had the experience. He’s going to inspire the team. And Royal Melbourne is the kind of golf course that I think will favour the International team.”
But as Harrington pointed out, none of this will matter if as a captain your team doesn’t win.
“It’s one of those things that’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “You really want to take on the job of captain, but it’s a one-and-done, so you don’t want to fail at it. You take it on and you want to do a great job, but ultimately you get judged on whether you win or lose. If you’re a great captain and the team loses, well the team lost. And we’ve seen captains who’ve been average and the team has won, and ultimately that’s what we try to do. So it’s a difficult situation.
“You can put you heart and soul into it but you’re putting yourself out there. I had to think long and hard as to whether I really wanted to put myself out there like that. Ultimately you want to be the Ryder Cup captain and you want to take your chances.
“Having played in six Ryder Cups myself, you realise when you become vice captain that you knew nothing. Being vice captain and being behind the scenes you see so much more. As individuals, it’s all about us when you’re a player. When you’re a vice captain you see there are so many more things going on. Now as captain I have to put all of that together and gather all of the information I’ve seen over the years. I’m not going to be doing anything new.”
Harrington evoked the approach of Seve Ballesteros to the game in explaining how he is trying to balance the pressure of being captain and possibly losing.
“You know, I watched old Nedbank Golf Challenge footage and Seve missed this horrible little 6-foot putt,” he said. “Now most professionals would be embarrassed and wouldn’t want to put themselves in that position again. But Seve just put it behind him and of course we all know he won everything.
“I suppose it’s like all of us who’ve played professional golf in that you can only win a tournament if you’re prepared to lose that tournament. There are plenty of great golfers out there who never win tournaments because they’re afraid of losing.”
For Els, it’s more a matter of the uncertainty associated with his team being able to capitalize on their chance if it comes in December.