South Africans make up bulk of Internationals this year at Muirfield Village

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Ernie Els is set to make his eighth appearance in the Presidents Cup.
September 29, 2013
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

There are 148 countries from which the International team in the Presidents Cup can draw its players.

Only one -- South Africa -- will feature six players on its roster this year.

As the world’s 24th most populous nation, the Rainbow Nation has some inherent advantages over some of the others represented. The lineage there also runs deep -- from Bobby Locke, to Gary Player, to David Frost, to Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, to Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, among others.

Since the start of the Presidents Cup in 1994, the average number of South Africans on the International team has been three, with Els and Goosen the most consistent participants. But that number has ballooned mostly because of Els and Goosen, and long before them Player.

“It’s a dream come true for everybody,” Els said, a prideful grin stretching from ear to ear.

Especially Els.

Oosthuizen and Schwartzel both came through his foundation in South Africa and he has known the two since they were teenagers.

The two have paid him and the motherland back by winning more than a combined 20 professional tournaments around the world, including a major championship for each. Their reward, in part, is getting to play alongside a boyhood idol.

Schwartzel played with Els on the last Presidents Cup team in Australia two years ago but this will be the first Presidents Cup for Oosthuizen, whose closest experience to the team competition as a professional was when he represented South Africa alongside Schwartzel at the 2011 World Cup.

“Ernie has done so much in guiding me along,” Schwartzel said. “He’s always been a hero of mine and it will be fantastic to be in his presence.”

All roots of South African success, however, can be traced back to the rise of Player, says Schwartzel.

The Hall-of-Famer amassed 165 career wins, including nine major championships.

He also became the first non-American to record a career Grand Slam when he won the 1965 U.S. Open and he remains a significant figure in the game despite being long past his playing days.

Player helped pave the way for Els and in turn Els for Schwartzel and Oosthuizen, much the way Greg Norman was an inspiration for Adam Scott and other young Australians.

“I think it started off with Gary (Player), obviously,” Schwartzel said. “But from my side, I never saw him hit a shot in tournament in his prime. It was way before my time.

“I always think you look up to your idols and you sort of set your bar to where you want to get to.

Ernie and Retief set it so high for so long. The one I can remember is Ernie at Congressional, when he won the U.S. Open. I've got also lots of memories of him and Retief at the (Nedbank Challenge) in South Africa.  Those were special moments for us. They were in the era where golf really started getting bigger and bigger. So they were the guys that we looked up to. That meant a lot for South Africa.”

In turn, Schwartzel and Ooosthuizen have done the same on a smaller scale for Branden Grace and Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge, both of who are also on this year’s team. Though closer in age to them than they are Els (and with respect to de Jonge, younger), their success has had its own trickle-down effect.

“Maybe with myself and Louis winning majors and competing a bit, more guys set the bar towards us,” Schwartzel said. “I think a lot has got to do with that.”

A lot the South Africans’ success also has to do with where they come from, specifically a climate that allows for year-round practice, an impressive junior program and up through the Sunshine Tour.

De Jonge is not from South Africa -- he's from Zimbabwe, which borders South Africa to the north. But he's obviously very familiar with South Africa's golf programs, and he also benefits from a close relationship with Captain Nick Price.

“It was very, very encouraging,” de Jonge said of the country’s junior program. “They wanted us to get out and play different golf courses and they made it very easy for us to do that.
“Your parents could drop you off first thing in the morning and come pick you up that evening. The golf courses were very accommodating to look after you.”

Now it’s their turn to look after South African golf and do it together.

With so many players from the same country, it should make some of the pairings for Price that much easier to form. For one, language won’t be a barrier. For another, there will be a built-in familiarity with one another.

“I suppose in a way it's going to be to our benefit because normally you've got players from all over the world,” Schwartzel said. “You sort of stick with the guy or guys that you know from the same country.  So the list, as opposed to the different countries there are, the more of a team it will be.”

That could also help turn the tide in what has been a U.S.-dominated event with the American team having won all but two Presidents Cups (one of which ended in a tie).

No matter what happens at Muirfield Village, though, South Africa’s place in the game will only continue to grow.

Said Els: “We’ve been churning guys through for a while and are still doing it. There’s another generation waiting in the wings.”