News & Opinion

This time could be different for Ernie Els vs. Tiger Woods

Their long history swings decidedly in Woods’ favor, but Els gives Internationals belief that they can beat U.S. in Presidents Cup

MELBOURNE, Australia – Ernie Els might be the most snake-bitten player of the modern era, with the venomous serpent being none other than Tiger Woods.

Among the two, they have amassed 180 victories worldwide, but Woods holds the upper hand with 108 total titles to Els’ 72. Woods also owns a big edge on Els in major championships, at 15-4. And this week, one other category in their head-to-head matchup comes into focus: the Presidents Cup, which begins Thursday at Royal Melbourne. Woods is 6-1-1 in the biennial matches against Els and the Internationals, with the only blemishes being a loss in 1998 at Royal Melbourne and an epic tie in 2003 in South Africa.

Ernie Els will captain the Internationals against his longtime nemesis Tiger Woods and the Americans this week.

Sixteen years ago, at Fancourt in Els’ South African homeland, the matches were knotted, 17-17, as Els and Woods went three extra holes before the match was declared a draw.

No one claims more scar tissue from Woods than Els.

“It's been a long ride,” Els, 50, said of his competition against Woods, 43. “I've known Tiger since the early ’90s, when he was still a junior player, and we've shared a lot of moments together. A lot of tournaments come through my mind now where I've come close and lost to him, but there was a couple where I got him, you know, here and there.”

Els has been on the short end of most Presidents Cups, with a 1-6-1 record while competing for the Internationals. He also lost once as an assistant captain, in 2017, so he came to the captaincy with a different attitude.

It started with trying to unify the team under a single flag, which Els thinks will create a brotherhood.

Els also has spent a lot of time with his players, communicating by text and email plus seeing them in person by playing in 21 events in the Middle East, Europe, Malaysia, Australia, South Africa and the U.S.

Each of those trips created opportunities to spend time with one of the many potential players in a vast International talent pool.

“I've played under numerous captains, great captains,” Els said reflectively. “I'm drawing from what I've learned from them. I'm drawing from the players that I played with in all those years, and just giving them what I know. I'm just being me.”

Adam Scott, who will be competing in his ninth Presidents Cup, is 0-7-1 in this series. At 39, he likely will not be playing his last Presidents Cup matches this week, but his experience is as reliable as Els’ and will act as a de facto assistant this week in his homeland.

“I definitely feel like it’s different,” Scott said of the Internationals’ team vibe this year. “Personally, I feel very confident that a lot of the foundation work for the team has been laid by Ernie all year, and I like that because I feel we lacked a bit of that over the last few years, certainly.”

The younger players – the 12-man International team includes seven rookies – have exhibited a considerable amount of enthusiasm, which Scott credits Els’ mentorship over the past year or so.

Els intends to use a modified pod system of player groupings, made popular by U.S. captain Paul Azinger for the Americans’ 2008 Ryder Cup victory at Valhalla. Els also will implement something Tigeresque, utilizing proven military techniques.

“I've listened to what they do, how they got themselves prepared for certain missions,” Els said of seeking advice from military commanders. “What their philosophy is, how they approach it, because it's very far apart from what we need to do. I mean, we're playing golf. We're trying to make birdies; we're not trying to kill people or not to be killed. But in many instances, their mindset is very similar. You’ve got to be prepared.”

Els also has talked with friends from rugby and cricket teams in South Africa. Their advice has reinforced his plan throughout 2019.

“It's a lot of youngsters and a lot of rookies, and it's great to see how eager they are and how ready they are to get this done, and that's where I feel Ernie has done an unbelievable job getting all of us ready and together,” South African Louis Oosthuizen said on the eve of the Presidents Cup. “Everyone's been looking forward to this week. The boys are playing good golf.”

Of course, Els’ plan could mean little if it’s not accompanied by exceptional golf against a heavily favored American team. But the sheer will of the International captain seems to be in the early part of the week to draw young and old into a plan that could defeat an opponent against whom Els has struggled for more than 20 years.

“The record is not the best,” said Mexico’s Abraham Ancer, one of the International rookies, “but I think we use it as motivation to change it moving forward. Ernie has been doing a good job and motivating us and doing all the right things.”