He was vague because that’s what captains do when they get this close to the end. “Hold my cards close to my chest,” Ernie Els said with a smile, before carefully discussing his International Presidents Cup team.
Els has an impossible task later this year when the matches are held at Royal Melbourne and the “Easy Captain” has to conjure some sort of magic to end the United States domination of the series. But at last week’s BMW PGA Championship, he had the look of a man without a care in the world.
“You might have a debate for one or two of the [potential captain’s picks] but I think there are two guys who are pretty obvious,” Els said. “On paper, again, we are not in the same ballpark [as the U.S. team], but I can assure you these boys are getting ready.”
Any captain of any team will tell you the toughest part of the gig are the picks. You want to get them right and you know someone is going to be left off the team. But if the South African was spending sleepless nights ruminating his potential picks it didn’t show at Wentworth.
“He was on the fringes. [Now] he’s definitely out of the fringe and right into the main part,” Els said of Chile’s Joaquin Niemann who won two weeks ago on the PGA Tour. “I’ve always loved his game. He’s right there [in consideration for a pick].”
But Els explained two of his picks are no-brainers with Australia’s Jason Day finishing the season just outside the eight automatic qualifiers and last season’s Rookie of the Year, Sungjae Im, finishing 11th on the final points list. It seems Els is content letting his other two picks simply emerge at the proper moment, very much living up to his famous nickname, the Big Easy.
By comparison, Els’ counterpart in the U.S. team room will have a much more difficult decision to make when the picks are announced on Nov. 4. For Tiger Woods, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from and that’s not necessarily a good thing when there are decisions to be made.
Tony Finau and Gary Woodland, who finished ninth and 10th, respectively, on the final points list, would seem obvious choices, and Rickie Fowler at No. 11 will certainly get plenty of attention. But with so much time between the end of the qualifying process and the selection deadline, Woods has acknowledged that much could change.
Patrick Reed, who won a playoff event and finished in the top 10 last week against a deep field at Wentworth, has certainly made a statement but might find a chilly reception following his critical comments at last year’s Ryder Cup. And players like Kevin Kisner, who won this year’s WGC-Match Play, and Billy Horschel, who got his fall campaign started last week in England with a top-10 finish, could also complicate the captain’s choices.
There are those who will push Woods to begin a new chapter for the U.S. team and pick newcomers like Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff, who have both already won on Tour.
At the other end of the philosophical debate, there will be those who will argue for Woods to pick himself and Phil Mickelson, who at 49 would likely be playing his last Presidents Cup.
“[Woods] should pick himself. He’s too young to be a captain,” Els offered last week.
And there will be those who long for something in between.
Woods’ choices are far from obvious and given his attention to detail and legendary intensity it’s easy to imagine the captain being consumed with the process.
At a meeting last month for potential players in New Jersey, Woods explained that any picks would be a team decision. Although the captain always has the final say, it’s important for this particular captain to have players that fit in.
What that could mean to a player like Reed, who publicly called out a teammate and a captain following last year’s loss in Paris, or even Woods, who would likely be pressured by some of his own team members to make himself a pick, remains to be seen.
As Els easily considered his options for this year’s team, what is clear is that the pressure to make the correct picks is squarely with Woods.