News & Opinion

Asian talent changes face of International team

Sure, the Americans won an 8th consecutive Presidents Cup, but the Internationals can look east for a reason to be optimistic

The script was flipped from the opening curtain and remained that way until the final act. A laugher turned into a drama. Those in supporting roles emerged as leading men. And the superhero became the villain, although we’ve known for a while now that you can’t rely on a chubby guy in a spandex costume.

For three long days, the International team that gave the Americans such a hard time at the 13th Presidents Cup performed a lot like one of those lightly regarded European squads at that other biennial match-play series. With some crazy weather serving as an ideal backdrop, there were surprises aplenty at Royal Melbourne in Australia, leading to an undercurrent of suspense that almost took us to the very end.

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International captain Ernie Els (left), with South Korea’s Byeong Hun An (right) and his caddie Daniel Parratt, finds an Asian nucleus of rising talent on which to build future Presidents Cup teams.

Imagine that. This event might never compare to the Ryder Cup in terms of prestige and interest, but it appears to be healthier now than it was a week ago. “We gave it a hell of a go,” International skipper Ernie Els said. “We came mightily close to winning and upsetting one of the greatest golf teams of all time.”

OK, so there’s a bit of overstatement to that assessment. What cannot be downsized is the value of Els’ five Asian golfers in the 16-14 loss, which might have become the rout everyone expected if not for the Far East factor (scores). The quintet won all three of its matches in the opening four-ball session, then had a hand in the 2½-point haul by the Internationals in that same format the next day.

Hideki Matsuyama, C.T. Pan, Haotong Li, Sungjae Im and Byeong Hun An combined for a 5-3-3 record in partnered bouts. Singles was another story, however, as the Asians went 1-3-1 against a U.S. squad suddenly feeling a sense of urgency. The ebb and flow of this Presidents Cup seemed to coincide with how well those five guys were playing, and the fact that almost half of Els’ 12-man roster came from Asia would seem to bode well for the International side’s future.

When this event was first held 25 years ago, you could count the number of world-class Asian golfers on one hand and still have a finger or two remaining. Japan was the only country producing such talent. Its best during that period, Jumbo Ozaki, was a big fish in a small pond who spent a considerable length of time in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking because he routinely beat a bunch of inferior opponents in his homeland.

On this side of the earth, Jumbo was notable primarily for his aversion to competing in the United States. He did make the trip to Virginia for the 1996 Presidents Cup, then skipped the ’98 gathering at Royal Melbourne despite finishing fourth among International qualifiers. Ozaki was replaced by his brother Joe, one of just six Asian players to participate in the first six editions of the series.

The emergence of Asian players on pro golf’s main stage can be traced to South Korea’s K.J. Choi, whose eight PGA Tour victories include the 2011 Players Championship. Choi would rise to as high as fifth in the OWGR in 2007, and though few observers probably would classify him as one of the premier players of the early 2000s, he was a tough little dude who harbored no fear when going against the game’s elite on foreign soil. You don’t go 5-for-5 after holding a 54-hole lead if you’re intimidated by your surroundings.

Although Japan’s Matsuyama, 27, clearly is the top Asian golfer heading into the 2020s, the other four who made it to Royal Melbourne signify the depth of quality coming from the Far East. China’s Li struggled to no end last week – he lost both of his matches by wide margins after Els benched him for the first two days – but he’s a gifted player with a high ceiling who finished third at the 2017 British Open, two weeks before his 22nd birthday.

Until he was plowed by Patrick Reed in the singles, Taiwan’s Pan established himself as Els’ secret weapon. He teamed with Matsuyama to beat Captain America/Webb Simpson twice in the four-balls, the second time basically by himself. South Korea’s Im, who recently was named rookie of the year by his PGA Tour brethren, is an iron horse who played in 35 events last season and made it to the Tour Championship. He’s currently 35th in the ranking, one of five Asians in the top 50, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you look at those same standings 10 years ago.

Yes, Y.E. Yang is still around. Asia’s first and only major champion occupies the 309th spot in the latest OWGR. If Yang’s best days are behind him, the growing presence of the Far East at a global level is still ahead.