It was 2003, and Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, arguably the best players in the world, were sparring back and forth as the South African sun began to dim.
It could be the iconic moment in the storied history of the Presidents Cup, the two titans of golf refusing to acquiesce as they traded pars into the night. The unlikeliest of ties ending with the unlikeliest of results—Captains Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus declaring neither side a loser, and thus the only draw in the history of the competition.
Now begins Round Two.
Woods and Els have been named captains of the 2019 Presidents Cup, and a chance to follow up on that incredible moment in 2003. The latest edition of the Presidents Cup is set for December 9-15, 2019, at the Melbourne Golf Club in Australia.
For Woods, the selection represents a goal to strive for—potential qualification as a player in his return to the game. For Els, it’s an opportunity to get the International Team back on the winning side of this competition.
For both, a chance at a rematch of that fateful Sunday evening 15 years ago.
“I thought I had him beat for once,” recalled Els, who has finished runner-up to Woods in seven tournaments, including two majors, the most of any player. “He had a left-to-right putt, four foot of break seemed like and in darkness. I had a pretty straight one going up the hill. But I really thought maybe this time he was going to miss one. But he poured it in. And so I think it could have gone on for a couple of hours more.”
Fifteen years later, Woods can still recall the playoff in vivid detail.
“We were talking about that then and there that night for a very long period of time with certain libations and we couldn’t believe the amount of pressure we felt and we both had won Major Championships, but nothing felt like that,” he said. “ … As I was lining up my putt I had to see this entire hillside of red and this entire team right in my line. And so I know if I miss, we lose. It became a reality.”
The announcement of Woods as captain came on the heels of his T2-place finish at the Valspar Championship, his best finish since 2013. The performance helped lift him to 43rd in the FedExCup Standings and 149th in the Official World Golf Ranking. His steady return to prominence following spinal fusion surgery began with a 12th-place finish at The Honda Classic in mid-February and a 23rd-place finish at the Farmers Insurance Open. He remains in search of that elusive 80th career PGA TOUR victory, but his odds appear to be as good as ever.
Woods will be 43 years old, nearing 44, when the 2019 Presidents Cup gets underway, making him the youngest captain in the history of the event, regardless of team. David Graham set the mark in 1994 at 48 years old for the International Team, while U.S. Captain Hale Irwin was just behind him the same year at 49 years of age.
Irwin played that year, the last time the Presidents Cup had a playing captain, going 2-1 for the U.S. in a 20-12 victory over the International Team. Paul Azinger, a captain’s assistant at the time, essentially assumed the role of captain with Irwin playing, though Irwin remained in the official role.
Whether Woods changes that remains to be seen.
“As Hale Irwin showed in 1994, qualifying as a playing captain is certainly possible,” Woods noted. “With that said, it’s way too early to discuss hypotheticals like that. At this point, I’m going to focus my efforts on being the best captain that I can be. If we get closer to the event and this becomes an issue, we can address it at that time.”
Of course, Woods—who served as a captain’s assistant in 2017—could qualify on sheer merit. Following completion of the 2019 TOUR Championship, the top eight players in the FedExCup Standings and the OWGR will be eligible for the U.S. and International teams, respectively, a change from the top 10 players in previous Presidents Cups.
That means Woods and Els will have four captains’ picks instead of the usual two. Each captain’s selections will be made at a to-be-determined date closer to the Presidents Cup.
“If you look at what’s happening in the game right now internationally, you’ve got HaoTong Li inside the top-40 in the world from China, Shubhankar Sharma from India who has played exceedingly well,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said. “We don’t know who is going to come forward between now and then, but it’s likely that stars from new countries are going to come forward with Ernie Els and Tiger Woods leading their respective teams. So I think it’s just going to take the game deeper and wider than it’s ever been, and it’s going to continue on the progression of reaching all the markets throughout the world in a powerful way.”
Selection format is one of two minor rule changes for 2019. Each player will also play a minimum of one match prior to the final-round singles matches, a change from years past where players were required to play twice during the same timeframe.
The U.S. holds a 10-1-1 record all-time in the Presidents Cup, that lone tie coming in that 2003 playoff duel between Woods and Els. The International Team’s only victory in the series came in 1998, also at the Royal Melbourne. This will be the third time in the biennial event’s 25-year history it has taken place at the renowned Sandbelt course, as it was also held there in 2011.
If anyone can reverse the International Team’s fortunes in this event, it’s likely Els, who brings a decorated resume in the Presidents Cup to his first-time role as captain. He has competed in the event eight times, tied for most by an International Team member with Vijay Sing and Adam Scott.
An assistant in 2017, he has long been viewed to take over the mantle from three-time captain Nick Price.
“As an International Team it’s a home field game for us, so we would like to think that we’re going to have the majority of the support,” Els said. “But as Tiger said earlier, it’s a global sport, kids heroes are their heroes, whether they’re American, South African, Australian, Chinese, they’re going to support the hero and we’re fine with that. I think momentum is a big part in match play, team sport, I think if we can get some putts moving our direction into the hole, like we did in 1998, I think the crowd can really get behind us a little bit more.”
Woods and Els have combined for 97 PGA TOUR victories, including 20 World Golf Championships events and 18 major championship titles, with 59 additional wins internationally.
There are perhaps no better players to represent the game on a global stage.
“We have been a part of it from the very beginning, Ernie and myself,” Woods said. “And we have seen it grow, we have seen it get bigger, and the fact that we can now be a part of it from a different side is going to be very exciting for both of us, especially given our history of battling each other for the past 20 plus years it’s going to be able to fun to do it from a different perspective.”
Presidents Profile: Tiger Woods
PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan is rarely caught at a loss for words. Until, of course, Tiger Woods gives him a ring with big news.
“I called Jay up and said, ‘Hey Jay, might you be interested in me possibly being the captain in the 2019 Presidents Cup?’” Woods recalled. “Silence.”
Woods’ push to become the United States captain in the 2019 Presidents Cup came at the behest of some longtime PGA TOUR confidants, who saw the way he operated as a captain’s assistant in 2017.
“It came about just through a group text with Davis (Love III), Freddie (Couples), Jim (Furyk) and Steve (Stricker), and who we thought might be the next captain,” Woods said. “They said that (I) would probably be on the short list. And I didn’t really think about it in that way. But then, after a little bit of thought, I said, ‘You know what, that’s sounds like something I really want to do.’”
Given his success in the Presidents Cup, there’s hardly anyone outside of Phil Mickelson who could prove to be a better asset than Woods. He’s 24-15-1 in the event since his first appearance on the 1988 U.S. Team, and is one of just five players to go 5-0-0 during a single event (2009). His 24 matches won ranks second all-time only to Mickelson’s 26, and his six victories in singles matches is the most in the event’s history.
Whether he takes that resume to the course himself is still to be determined. But the option is there.
“I just wondered if that was an opportunity, and (Monahan) said that there’s nothing in the bylaws that say that I can’t do it,” Woods said. “It’s going to be dependent on myself, my assistants and the players, if I happen to get to that point. That’s a bridge that’s a long way away from now to be crossing, but if it does come to that point, it won’t just be just my decision, it will be a collaborative effort, what is best for the team.”
Presidents Profile: Ernie Els
Ernie Els is no stranger to the Presidents Cup.
The South African, who has an overall record of 20-18-2 in the event, is tied with Vijay Singh for most all-time match appearances on the International Team with 40. He’s won more matches than any other International Team member (40, Vijay Singh) and has won more matches than any other International Team member (20).
Suffice it to say, he’s the perfect candidate to take over in the captain’s role.
“The Presidents Cup has provided me with many of the best memories of my career,” said Els. “To be named captain of the team is an incredible honor. There is a fun and talented group of young players emerging from all across the globe for the International Team, and I am eager to accept the responsibility of building a winner when we face the United States at one of my favorite courses and cities in the world at Royal Melbourne. Tiger and I have had some great duels in the past, and I look forward to the challenge of going against my longtime friend yet again in 2019.”
Els, who has 19 career PGA TOUR victories to his credit, including for major championships, is the sixth person to serve as captain for the International Team (Nick Price – 2017, 2015, 2013; Greg Norman – 2011, 2009; Gary Player – 2007, 2005, 2003; Peter Thomson– 2000, 1998, 1996; David Graham – 1994).
The 48-year-old played a key role in the International team’s lone win in 1998. He’s ready to register another victory from the captain’s role this time.
“It’s really kind of a dream job so to speak for me,” he said. “I know we have got a hell of a job against a pretty formidable guy to my right here and a great team they have. The so we know we got a lot of work left, but I’m really excited to get to work and work with Jay and his team from the PGA TOUR and get down there to play on a great golf course.”