Presidents Cup: Wildcard options for captains Ernie Els and Tiger Woods

Ernie Els faces some tough decisions as Presidents Cup captain
Ernie Els faces some tough decisions as Presidents Cup captain

The Presidents Cup (no apostrophe, subs) is, let's face it, not amazing. The United States basically always win, often by a distance, and there's always the risk that the actual president might turn up.

Both of those things happened in 2017, but two years on we head to Australia and things could just be different.

Whisper it, but there are basically 10,000 miles between Melbourne and Florida, taking care you'd think of point two, and Melbourne also happens to be the venue of the sole International win.

Plus, trends fans may wish to note that this 20.5-11.5 annihilation happened in 1998, the year Bill Clinton was impeached. Coincidence? Doubt it mate.

But before getting stuck into the plainly unbeatable Internationals and the weight of history they have in their favour, it's probably wise to know just who will be playing.

As such and beginning with Ernie Els' side, here are the wildcard options. Apologies that they're delivered in essay form.

The Internationals

Automatic qualifiers

  1. Marc Leishman
  2. Hideki Matsuyama
  3. Louis Oosthuizen
  4. Adam Scott
  5. Abraham Ancer
  6. Haotong Li
  7. Cheng-tsung Pan
  8. Cameron Smith

Let's begin with the obvious: Jason Day, who finished ninth in qualifying, will be selected. He might not know it, but Australia was once his home and he's also a major-winning, ex-world number one who, unlike many of the options, knows what it feels like to look a world-class American in the eye and then deliver a knockout punch.

Day is not in good form - his last top-10 finish came in June, since when he's removed the bombastic Steve Williams from bag duties - but he has at least started this new season a little better. He just so happens to have won the World Cup at Royal Melbourne, too, so there is simply no jeopardy here: Els might as well admit to having three picks at his disposal.

Sungjae Im should be next on the list. This South Korean workhorse, not yet 22, was rightly named the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year for 2019 having bagged seven top-10 finishes along the road to East Lake. Bar winning, something he's yet to do at the very highest level, it was a flawless first foray and he's simply a world-class player already.

He's also red-hot right now. In fact, the new season has sparked an upturn, with second place in Mississippi and third behind Tiger Woods in the Zozo Championship sandwiching a dominant victory on the Korean Tour. Like Day, Im will add putting quality to the International side and with their best two players lacking in that department, it's another tick in the box.

Speaking of dodgy putters, Byeong Hun An really ought to be joining Day and Im, though it's worth noting that his credentials have strengthened recently. That's broadly to be considered a good thing - in-form and all that - but has he always been a part of Els' plans? We all remember Matt Wallace forcing his way into the Ryder Cup reckoning (I mean, it was literally last year) and not always does the hot hand get the vote over a presumed member of the side.

In An's case, it's likely that Els has always had him in mind. For all the former BMW PGA champion is immensely frustrating, I'm guessing Els doesn't spend Thursday to Sunday staring at ShotLink data like the rest of us and he therefore isn't fully aware of what he's signing up to. Plus, An hasn't been outside the world's top 100 in four and a half years. He's very good.

An would also make an ideal partner for Im. Some might consider it reductive to go Korean with Korean, but Im's weakness (editor's note: he does not have a weakness) could be said to be occasional lapses with his approach play, a field in which An is metronomic in his reliability. Plus, they've been known to dine together, the Tour's Korean squad being particularly familiar.

Now it gets complicated. There are as many as a dozen players who could be considered worthy of selection, half of whom are inside the world's top 70, most of whom are rookies. Remember, neither Im nor An have played Presidents Cup golf before, and among the eight automatic qualifiers are four who will be making their own debuts - Smith, Pan, Li and Ancer.

Add in the fact that Charl Schwartzel's sequence of appearances will end at four, and that Anirban Lahiri played in 2015 and 2017 but surely won't play here, and experience is a major issue. It's that, plus his chest-puffing, front-running performances of the past, which gives Branden Grace a chance of leapfrogging players who are simply better at golf right now.

Grace has been a Presidents Cup star since suffering a hard introduction in 2013, when he'll know that a contribution of zero points from four matches was particularly costly in what was a three-point defeat. As if to address that directly, Grace went 5-0-0 at the 2015 Presidents Cup in Korea, and while less prolific was the second-biggest International contributor at Liberty National, just behind partner Louis Oosthuizen.

With Oosthuizen fresh and in-form, and alone as the sole South African qualifier, it must be sorely tempting for Els to call up the wingman. If Moliwood taught us anything it's that partnerships make teams, and in Grace and Oosthuizen, Els has the option of falling back on the best the Internationals may ever have had. Given that he knows Grace well and at the start of the year leaned on his advice, the pair teeing up with various potential team members in practice, there remains a good chance that the captain selects his countryman.

Grace's form, though, is a major concern. The start of the new PGA Tour season marked his first departure from the world's top 100 in five years, he's without a win in two, and he has one stroke play top 10 all year - which came in February. He would be nowhere near the shortlist were he American and if Grace does get in, the pressure will be on to justify that act of generosity.

Options in better form are plentiful. From Japan, Shugo Imahira begins the week ranked 50th in the world, a career-high, and he's plainly in good form having won and finished second in Japan lately. The trouble is, despite the odd flourish he has failed so far to take that quality overseas, and it's likely this comes two years too soon as a result.

That comment also applies to Ryo Ishikawa, the back-to-form ex-wunderkind who has played two previous Presidents Cups, winning an excellent five points from nine matches. A brilliant putter who has gone close to winning on the PGA Tour more than once, Ishikawa had the chance to steal the 12th place after two wins earlier in the year, but 51st in the Zozo wasn't enough and he's out of time.

The chief alternatives to Grace, then, are as follows: Adam Hadwin, Joaquin Niemann, Corey Conners, Erik van Rooyen, Jazz Janewattananond, Justin Harding, Kiradech Aphinbarnrat, Emiliano Grillo, Danny Lee, Dylan Frittelli, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Sebastian Munoz.

Where to begin? Each of these has something to recommend them - Hadwin, Grillo and Lee have played in it before, Conners is in-form, Frittelli won on the PGA Tour this summer, Harding has become prolific at a lower level and contended in the Masters, Bezuidenhout has been one of the stars of the European Tour season along with van Rooyen, Jazz is playing the best golf of his life, Munoz and Niemann have both won this season.

Adam Hadwin has been on the shortlist ever since 2017

Much then will depend on Els' planning, and a look at his vice captains - KJ Choi, Geoff Ogilvy, Trevor Immelman and Mike Weir - hardly clears things up. Ultimately I've come to believe he may fall back on Grace, but of those above the standout candidates surely must be Hadwin, the highest-ranked option, and Niemann, arguably the most talented.

Inexperience remains the worry with Niemann, who at 20 is younger than Im, and having been largely quiet since winning the Greenbrier he's likely slipped down the list. Hadwin has also gone quiet - he started the new PGA Tour season with second in the Safeway and fourth in Vegas, but has been outside the top 40 in both starts since - yet he brings the benefit of experience, albeit having earned just half a point in 2019.

As you can see, neither has been able to cement his place, but they've likely done more than those operating at a lower level. For all that van Rooyen contended to a point in the PGA Championship and has won since, he's in essence less experienced than Niemann when it comes to the opposition. Similar comments apply to Jazz, Bezuidenhout and Harding, while Munoz played his hand too late and a top-10 for Aphibarnrat at the CJ Cup will prove to be similarly in vain.

Perhaps all of those in the final section of the above analysis have in fact given Els the reason he needed to select Grace, but it won't be an easy decision and, given that I've completely changed my mind on this over the course of a day, I suspect it's one he's still mulling over.

Wildcard predictions: Day, Im, An, Grace

Branden Grace
Branden Grace: Could he be given the benefit of considerable doubt?

The USA

Automatic qualifiers

  1. Brooks Koepka
  2. Justin Thomas
  3. Dustin Johnson
  4. Patrick Cantlay
  5. Xander Schauffele
  6. Webb Simpson
  7. Matt Kuchar
  8. Bryson DeChambeau

If a football team is as strong as its bench, then perhaps the strength of a golf team can best be revealed by a look at the options they have to choose from when it comes to wildcards. It's this which, as ever, underlines the pound-for-pound difference between the hosts and the visitors.

Should he wish to, captain Tiger Woods can choose not to pick Tiger Woods. The Masters champion (!!!) only managed to qualify in 13th place; by contrast, 13th place on the Internationals' list went to a player who won a low-key PGA Tour event he had to qualify for the Monday beforehand. If strength-in-depth is your measure then this is not a contest.

Woods, of course, will select Woods. He was almost certainly set to do so even before the Zozo Championship, when the great man resurrected himself once more to win a record 82nd PGA Tour title. History is history, but Woods has won three times in his last 14 starts; by any and every measure, he's entitled to consider self-selection at worst valid, if not unavoidable.

I happen to be of the view that Woods would be wise to at least consider leaving himself out. In doing so he could avoid a difficult scenario, in which he's comfortably winning his singles point as the match is decided elsewhere, and he could also experience captaincy in its fullest form - a potential advantage should he take the reins in a future Ryder Cup.

It's clear that the USA have not yet worked out how to make the most of the Presidents Cup when it comes to the vastly more important Ryder Cup, and in sitting on the sidelines Woods might actually demonstrate an understanding of the bigger picture. Alas, even if he saw it this way - a way which would also allow him to blood another team player - sponsor pressures would weigh too heavily. He's in.

While I'd love to make the case for Billy Horschel, or even Kevin Na, I'd be wasting your time and mine. There are three remaining wildcard spots for Woods to hand out, and there are four candidates for them: Tony Finau, Gary Woodland, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed.

The latter still has a reputation for being an outstanding team player, for all that the nickname 'Captain America' doesn't sit well with some. Reed was the top-scoring American on his 2014 Ryder Cup debut, beat Rory McIlroy as the US won it back in 2016, and even last year came up trumps when playing alone as he saw off Tyrrell Hatton at the end of a turbulent week during which he complained at being split from Jordan Spieth.

The negatives for Reed are that some consider him a toxic presence in the team room - although in Spieth's anticipated absence, that may be less of a concern. Plus, he's done all that could have been asked of him since qualifying ended, winning a FedEx Cup Playoff event and keeping busy since, and if Woods doesn't select him we'll know for sure that their relationship was soured in Paris.

Finau was among the few positives to come out of that week for the United States, and having been ninth in qualifying looks set to be rewarded with a Presidents Cup debut. His form hasn't been spectacular of late but he's comfortably inside the world's top 20 and, if this were to boil down to a popularity contest, he'd be right at the front of the queue.

I expect him to get the nod and I also expect we'll see Woodland make his debut in this event having won the World Cup alongside Matt Kuchar in 2011.

The US Open champion has gradually worked his way back to form since then and top-five finishes in both Korea and Japan should remove any doubt as to his credentials. He'd be an excellent partner for anyone - perhaps Woods himself - and, like Finau, is immensely popular.

And that leaves us with Fowler, who hasn't played since the TOUR Championship as he focuses on getting married and enjoying his honeymoon.

Fowler has been ever-present for the US of late, playing in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 Ryder Cups and the 2015 and 2017 Presidents Cups, but that five-year stretch of team golf may come to an end despite another good season.

Indeed it's somewhat ironic that Fowler has won again this year - he'd been without a PGA Tour title since February 2017 before triumphing in Phoenix - yet has steadily fallen down the world rankings, his top-10 finishes at Augusta and in The Open never really threatening to be more significant than that.

Given that he's not played for so long, it may be safe to assume that Fowler has accepted his fate. It's harsh, but having managed just a point in Paris, the same total he reached in the last 'away' Presidents Cup, his absence may not be felt as keenly as some would suggest.

Wildcard predictions: Woods, Reed, Finau, Woodland

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