News & Opinion

Ernie Els, on Presidents Cup captaincy: Once is enough

After taking the Internationals to the brink of a rare victory against the Americans, the South African says he won’t return to lead the team in 2021 at Quail Hollow

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It’s a one-and-done for Ernie Els as Presidents Cup captain.

Els, who nearly led the International side to its second victory in 13 biennial matches against the Americans in December, thinks he has the team headed in the right direction. At the same time, he said that someone else should captain the Internationals when they visit Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., for the 2021 matches.

Ernie Els embraces Cameron Smith and the rest of the International team at the Presidents Cup for their progress in taking the Americans down to the final matches in December at Royal Melbourne. Els said he won’t return to the captaincy for another shot at the U.S. in 2021.

It was an arduous decision for Els. On Dec. 15, hours after his team lost, 16-14, at Royal Melbourne in Australia, Els thought that it was time to move on. He revisited his decision numerous times before he lost in a playoff Jan. 18 in his Champions Tour debut in Hawaii.

“That’s as good as I can do,” said Els, explaining his reasoning. “I gave it all. This is another change I wanted to make in our team. I get one opportunity, win or lose. You don’t get a second chance.”

Though he told his team on that Sunday night that he would not return as captain in 2021, he remained unconvinced. When Els met with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in West Palm Beach, Fla., in early January, he committed to stepping away.

Monahan asked him to reconsider, so Els said that he would give him a final decision when he returned from Hawaii.

Els discussed it with his wife, Liezl, in Hawaii.

“I’m, like, I want to do it. There is so much of me that wants to do it, but I know the hardest thing is to step away,” Els said. “I can understand why people become dictators. You can get hooked on that power.”

When Els returned from Hawaii, he notified the International squad via the still-functioning team text that he had made his final decision and then told Monahan.

“Ernie did an amazing job, poured his heart and soul into the event,” Monahan said. “As he had an opportunity to think about how much he put into it and how much it took out of him and the system he put in place, it was clear he wanted to move the system forward, and that meant having someone else in position to captain, which was one of his vice captains from Melbourne.”

Els’ assistants were K.J. Choi, Geoff Ogilvy, Trevor Immelman and Mike Weir. The selection is expected to be announced by the PGA Tour during the upcoming Florida Swing, either at the Arnold Palmer Invitational or the Players Championship.

It was about this time last year, at the Genesis Invitational, when Els held the first meeting with his potential team. He was committed to changing the focus and outlook of a team that has only one victory and one tie in a quarter-century of the biennial matches.

Els reminded his potential players that they were a special group of elite golfers and that they would need to bring their best games to Royal Melbourne.

“My mission, first meeting at Genesis with them, was we are not going to be behind going into the singles,” said Els, a four-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Fame inductee from South Africa. “I took them through all four sessions and said, if we can get to 10 points before the singles, we are right on track.”

The Internationals did, in fact, get to 10 points through the first three days, leading 10-8 entering Sunday’s pivotal 12 singles matches. Yet, building that two-point advantage seemed to take more out of his players than Els anticipated. The Americans won six singles matches, halved four others and rolled to an 8-4 victory in the session to win the match.

“I told them on Saturday night, we are right where we need to be, but I did see a little bit of a dip in them,” Els said. “You could just see some of them were tired. You could just see the pressure getting to some of them.”

Nearly two months after the loss, Els found himself second-guessing some decisions. One was putting Abraham Ancer, one of seven International rookies, out first in singles, thinking that he likely would draw Justin Thomas. However, the Americans countered with player/captain Tiger Woods.

Ancer had said at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in his native Mexico in mid-November that he’d like to play against Woods. Those comments were on everyone’s minds when Woods put himself in the No. 1 slot on Saturday night as the pairings were being finalized.

Woods would win, 3 and 2, in a matchup of unbeaten players.

“I didn’t know Tiger was so bent to play him,” Els said. “I would never have put him out. I didn’t want Ancer against Tiger.”

Els still thought Ancer had a great shot because he was playing the best golf on the team, having compiled a 3-0-1 record to that point, but it didn’t work out.

“It was my mistake,” Els said.

Els conceded that for most of the week, he was working off of 3-4 hours of sleep per night and that what he described as “stress, if I’m doing the right thing” was more than he anticipated.

His goal all along was to change the mindset of the team, not just for the matches in Australia but for future series. Even in defeat, Els thought the experience will make each of his players a better competitor.

Sure enough, in the next week, Adam Scott won the Australian PGA. Three weeks later, Cameron Smith won the Sony Open, and Louis Oosthuizen finished second at the South African Open. In two more weeks, Marc Leishman won the Farmers Insurance Open.

“It’s going to help you into your future,” Els told his players on Sunday night. “You’ll bring your elite level, and you’re playing under pressure. The way you’ll play under pressure in the Presidents Cup, it will only help you going forward.”

Monahan applauded Els for the effort.

“To see the work Ernie did week in and week out, pairing his guys, all the time he got them together and the team building he did, as we got there and knowing where he was with his vice captains and really building a system and process, rebranding, getting the guys to buy into and be excited about it, by the time we got there that’s what I was so pleased with,” Monahan said. "And then to have it play out the way it did, to be 4-1 after Day One and have the Internationals with the momentum and to play out as dramatically as it did.”

After the loss and the final meeting, Els and the team retreated to the practice range, where the Internationals started kicking around an Australian rules football supplied by Royal Melbourne's grounds crew.

Els said it was fun to see Hideki Matsuyama kicking the ball and watching the others running around as if they had won.

“Geoff Ogilvy pulled his hamstring,” Els said, laughing.

“It still hurts me,” Els said of the loss. “I know I’m doing the right thing; this is the way it should be. If we are going to follow the Ryder Cup’s great teams, this is what you do.”

Despite his apparent final decision, Els left room for one possibility to return to the job.

“If it ever goes to South Africa and I’m not too old,” Els said, “I’d like to be considered for that one.”

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