Ben Coley profiles Ernie Els' International side, who head into the Presidents Cup as underdogs.
A likeable Australian who carries the rare distinction, for a player of such class, of having never won a top-tier professional tournament in Australia. For some that'll serve as evidence that he's a bit meek, but the fact is he hasn't played that much golf at home. A consistent feature of this Presidents Cup side since his 2013 debut, Leishman has so far excelled in singles, beating Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth (when he was the best player in the world). With a partner, though, he has contributed little: two points from a possible 10 and zero from four goes at fourballs. Some of his partners - Angel Cabrera and Richard Sterne in particular - haven't helped, but he went 0-2-1 with Jason Day last time and you'd have thought they'd make an ideal duo. The challenge for Els, then, is to find him the right partner, and it could be someone young and explosive like Sungjae Im or Joaquin Niemann. Or perhaps it could be simpler: Leishman finished second in the World Cup alongside Cameron Smith last year and the two may well set this event rolling in the first match of the first session.
No doubt Els will have been delighted with Matsuyama's return to form, and while not quite the highest-ranked member of the International side at present he's surely the most capable and, along with Adam Scott, a strong candidate to play all five matches. So far Matsuyama has been most effective in singles, seeing off JB Holmes and Justin Thomas, and his link-up with Scott fizzled out after a strong start. Given his ball-striking qualities it's no surprise he's been a productive fourballs partner and it'll be interesting to see who gets the nod to appear alongside him. Many would lean towards a strong putter like Adam Hadwin, but Els may be forced to spread out his experience. It's also worth noting that the famed Moliwood partnership of 2018 relied on having two of the strongest ball-strikers on the European Ryder Cup side doing their damage from tee-to-green. Whatever the case, it's to the disadvantage of the Internationals that Matsuyama has struggled to break down the language barrier, while his only competitive experience in Australia comes courtesy of sixth place in the 2016 World Cup.
A gap in the notable partners section above gets us straight to the main issue when it comes to Branden Grace's absence from this side. Grace and Oosthuizen went 4-0-0 together in 2015, forming a brilliant partnership which also fared well in New Jersey two years later, going 1-1-1 before Nick Price's decision to split them for the final session of pairs play backfired badly. Oosthuizen had only ever been paired with Grace or Charl Schwartzel until that point and while he and Day put up a fight, they were beaten. Who will be his next partner? That's difficult to answer, as the sole South African on the side, but if the Internationals are to win they need Oosthuizen firing. He has an excellent record in the event, taking 8.5 points from a possible 15 despite always being on the losing side, and it's notable that he's unbeaten in singles - taking 1.5 points from two against Patrick Reed. As for recent form, it's been a year similar to that of Matsuyama and typically Oosthuizen: flashes of brilliance, including one major top-10 and all four cuts made, but only fleetingly has he contended. A former winner in Australia who will be desperate to do a job for Els, so much will depend on which Oosthuizen turns up. Hopefully it's the one who finished second in the Australian Open last week.
Scott cut his teeth in this competition alongside Els in 2003, contributing three points having played all five matches as a rookie as the event ended in a tie. Ever-present since, he's played nine Presidents Cups without winning one, and is therefore entitled to be a little battle worn. As you'd expect, his record is solid without being spectacular - he's had to prop up some fairly modest partners at times but also took a while to come into his own as a singles player. On the latter point, he's now on a four-match winning run and was electric in defeating Rickie Fowler when the Presidents Cup was close in Korea, so expect to see him out early on Sunday. Stop me if you've heard this before but Scott has played well all year without winning, a la Matsuyama and Oosthuizen. He's definitely benefited from being able to leave the flag in while putting, and all things being equal some kind of silverware should arrive soon. Could it be the Presidents Cup? Well, playing on home soil is a huge advantage here and Scott's Royal Melbourne record, which includes a win during that dream 2013 sequence, is outstanding. As with those above, much will depend on his contribution. I expect it to be significant despite last week's shock missed cut.
Mexico's first ever Presidents Cup representative, his place on the side confirmed with a battling second place behind Reed in The Northern Trust. Though largely modest in the months before that and low-key for a long time after, he's since finished fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions to offer a timely boost to his captain and colleagues. Plus, Ancer might be making his debut in the event, but he produced the performance of his career this time last year to win the Australian Open, before sharing second in the World Cup - also held Down Under - a week later. That could count for plenty and his straight-shooting game, built on quality driving, should make for an ideal partner. Impressed with his refusal to wilt when going head-to-head with Reed during the FedEx Cup Playoffs and quietly fancied to play a key role here having battled to a respectable finish at The Australian over the weekend.
As with Ancer, the first man from his country to play in the Presidents Cup and, having just turned 24, should be a mainstay of the International side in the years to come. Another who excels off the tee, there have been one or two issues around his iron play of late and he switched back to an old set of clubs at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where he started well but faltered thereafter. Hasn't been the best of years despite starting so promisingly, but he looks the type to raise his game having impressed in the EurAsia Cup last January. Affable type who could pair nicely with anyone and the fact he's spent so much time off the course with world-class players means he shouldn't be overawed.
Formerly top-class amateur who completed the transition to the highest ranks of the professional game with victory in the RBC Heritage back in the spring. The fact he broke through there makes sense, as he's a straight-hitting sort who can't overpower a golf course, and in theory his style of play will be better suited to this than it would have been any of the previous three Presidents Cup venues. Finished T19 in the 2016 World Cup, since which he's come a long way, but form of late is a big worry. No way he'd have been selected had he not qualified and likely to be a fringe player who could play just twice.
Remains a difficult player to weigh up, his sole PGA Tour win having come in a pairs event and his strengths being quite hard to describe without using the word 'wedge'. Still, very effective at his best and certainly at home, where over the last five years he's played 14 events, winning twice and bagging seven further top-10 finishes. Has come a long way since missing the cut at Royal Melbourne in 2013 and with home advantage very much in his favour, expect him to figure prominently. Back to those strengths, and his short-game is among the best in the Internationals' line-up. Els no doubt will have his own plan as to how to leverage that, but expect Smith to play with either Leishman or Scott at some stage, likely the former in Thursday's opening fourballs.
The PGA Tour's 2019 rookie of the year having made it all the way to East Lake thanks to a rock-solid all-round game. Im was among a small group who ended the season with positive figures across all four main strokes-gained categories, with his driving and putting particularly big weapons. Makes birdies for fun, perfectly capable in the wind, and for all that things have happened fast he ought to be considered among the main weapons at Els' disposal, particularly given that he appears to take everything in his stride and has quickly gained experience playing alongside world-class rivals. The most obvious wildcard and was 11th in elite company when last seen.
The youngest player here having been given a vote of confidence with a wildcard pick at the tender age of 21. Els said his young wildcards 'made themselves locks' with their play, but in Niemann's case I'm not sure that's quite true as, having won the Greenbrier, he's been just a little quiet since then. Still, this is a world-class player in the making, one who became the youngest overseas winner on the PGA Tour for almost a century when breaking through at the start of the new season, two months before his 21st birthday. A brilliant ball-striker, Niemann has got better and better on the greens since the middle of summer and has a ferocity about him which must have helped earn him the vote. Pairing him from a skills perspective should be easy but would've hoped to see more over the last six weeks.
Perhaps not a selection to hugely excite supporters of the Internationals, nor to strike fear into the Americans, Hadwin's major redeeming quality may well have been his experience playing in the 2017 side. Granted, he managed just half a point from three matches in a heavy defeat, but it at least exposed him to the Presidents Cup and in a side which was already young and inexperienced, that has to have counted. Not that Hadwin is unworthy, as a member of the world's top 50 (just) who started the new season with back-to-back top-five finishes. Form in Australia comes courtesy of a top-five finish at the 2018 World Cup while from a skill set perspective, his accuracy and putting look set to complement the louder characteristics of the best players in this side.
Would've been in my side but originally left out of Ernie's before Day's withdrawal. An deserves his chance, having narrowly missed out in 2015 and 2017, and while infuriating golf punters the world over, he has a lot to give here. Arrives in great form, having gone 47-3-MC-MC-6-8-14 to start the new season, and his approach play in particular can be jaw-dropping at times. Clearly, he doesn't putt anywhere near well enough to be a consistent contender and it was a little disappointing he couldn't take a fine opportunity to land the Wyndham Championship, but on balance he's a little unfortunate not to be a PGA Tour winner. Seems strange to say, but looks a far more reliable option than Day and the addition of a second Korean can't be a bad thing. In fact, a pairing with Im would be very exciting and capable of matching any twosome the US can throw in against them.