MELBOURNE, Australia — The way Ernie Els sees the Presidents Cup, Royal Melbourne Golf Club is like a savanna in his native South Africa and the United States team is the bared-teeth beast charging at his players.
Sometimes the beast bites, Els told his International squad. And when that happens?
“Put a spear in it and bite back,” he said.
This Presidents Cup is personal for Els, 50, a first-time captain who carries scars from his battles as a player with the United States captain, Tiger Woods. Seven times in his Hall of Fame career, Els finished second to Woods, including four times in major championships.
“I’ve known Tiger since the early ’90s when he was still a junior player, and we’ve shared a lot of moments together,” Els said at the start of the week. “A lot of tournaments come through my mind now where I came close and lost to him, but there was a couple where I got him, you know, here and there.”
Els’s underdog International team held a four-point lead over Tiger and his cubs entering the fourth of five sessions on Saturday. As the biennial competition turned toward the decisive Sunday singles session, it was reasonable to wonder: Would the captains’ past become prologue?
Can the International players weather a Sunday charge by the Americans as well as Els did a Woods charge at the PGA Tour stop outside Miami in 2002? Or will the final day call to mind the day in 1998 when Els began a final round eight strokes ahead of Woods only to lose to him in a playoff?
No matter how the Presidents Cup ends, Els has succeeded in changing the culture of the International team. Traditionally a multinational mishmash of players from outside Europe, the Internationals have for years had little in common except a shared history of losing badly to the Americans, who brought a 10-1-1 record into this year’s event.
Els’s 12-man team is competing under the flags of nine countries, but has found solidarity in analytics, a numbers-based system by which Els has determined his pairings.
Els’s influence can be seen everywhere two or more International players are gathered. He introduced a new team logo, a coat-of-arms shield that symbolizes the strength and unity that he is fostering in the team room. He has challenged the Australian crowds to get more vociferously behind their “home” team, and he has stood on tee boxes showing his players exactly where to aim their shots.
“I think if you give him a club in his hand, he’ll hit the shot for you,” joked Louis Oosthuizen, a veteran team member from South Africa. “He’s so into this week.”
Woods, on the other hand, has had a club in his hands. The Americans’ playing captain this time around, he teamed with Justin Thomas to win two matches in the first two days. Woods, 43, is only the second playing captain in the event’s 25-year history, and he recently became the second player to amass 82 PGA tour victories.
His shadow is immense, and Els, not for the first time, has felt the chill that it casts.
In joint news conferences leading to the weekend, Els and Woods fielded 62 questions, with 39 of them directed at Woods. On Friday, when eight of the 12 questions went to Woods, Els at one point idly picked up his phone and started scrolling through it.
Els is one of the more genial players in professional golf, and in the year-and-a-half leading up to the competition, his sociability has rubbed off on his players. At Els’s urging, they convened for dinners that turned into bonding exercises.
“Ernie’s tried so hard to get us all together and just to know each other,” said the Australian Cameron Smith, one of seven International team rookies. “I think that’s played a really big part this week.”
As the week has worn on, Els’s conversations with outsiders have grown shorter and his stares, longer.
“I think he’s a little more intense,” Oosthuizen said. “It almost looks like he wants this more than when he’s out there playing.”
Can anyone blame him? Els has 72 worldwide titles, including four majors, and is a former world No. 1. He is golfing royalty. But this week, as was true for most of Els’s career, Woods is commanding the king’s share of the attention.
“You say you haven’t seen Ernie focused like this,” said the Australian Adam Scott, who is playing in his ninth Presidents Cup, “but I remember playing with him so many times in the heat of these events or in majors. He was an incredible competitor who won so much. That’s his habit; it’s winning. You know, he’s a little old now and hasn’t competed as much on the tour for a couple years, but deep down inside, he’s used to winning, and that’s the attitude he’s brought here.”
Geoff Ogilvy, an International team assistant captain, said he suspected it would be deeply satisfying for Els to win at Woods’s expense.
“It would be nice,” said Ogilvy, an Australian. “He ran into a buzz saw a lot in the big tournaments. He was so far and away the second-best golfer in the world for the best patch of Tiger’s career, but that was still a lot of daylight from No. 1.”
Woods and Els both have devoted the past two years to major renovation projects. Woods rebuilt his own career and Els overhauled the International team.
“It’s been fantastic to see the commitment with which Ernie has come in preparation for this event,” said Trevor Immelman, another of Els’s assistant captains. “In the last couple of years he’s really put a lot of time and effort into it, leaving no stone unturned, so to speak.”
He added, “I just really hope that our players are able to respond appropriately and make him proud.”