Els easy to lean on: The Big Easy looked to for leadership at The Presidents Cup

October 02, 2013
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

DUBLIN, Ohio -- For three sudden-death holes, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els went shot for shot, The Presidents Cup riding on every one of them in the fading light at the Links Course at Fancourt in southern South Africa.

Perched on the mounds on the left side of the second hole was a 15-year-old Branden Grace watching it all unfold.

“I was still there watching them battling it out,” Grace says now of The Presidents Cup in 2003, which was ultimately declared a tie. “It was great. That's when I really knew this is what I want to do.”

A decade later he’s watching Els again, this time as his teammate on the International Team as it tries to win for the first (and only) time since 1998. The U.S. is 7-1-1 in the biennial matches.

In all, there are five South Africans on this year’s roster, including Els, who is the unofficial leader of the team. The Big Easy has played in all but two Presidents Cups -- the first one in 1994 and in 2005 when he was sidelined with a knee injury.

But Charl Schwartzel has another word for Els: Hero.

“Ernie has done so much in guiding me along,” Schwartzel said. “It will be fantastic to be in his presence.”

Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen were just two of the players on this year’s team to have come through Els’ foundation in South Africa. Even those who didn’t, however, point to that day in November when the two best players in the world went head-to-head.

Earlier that Sunday, each captain had to put a name in an envelope in the event the matches ended in a tie. When they did, no one was surprised who would be left to play for The Presidents Cup.

Woods was No. 1 in the world and Els a hero in his home country and not far behind at No. 3.

Some 10,000 fans, including Grace, swarmed around them, chasing after every shot before darkness settled in and both sides agreed it was too much pressure to place the outcome of The Presidents Cup on any one player.

''Probably the first I've ever felt my legs shaking,'' Els said at the time after holing a 12-footer to extend the duel with Woods.

Added Woods after holing a 15-footer to match Els on the following hole, “That was one of the most nerve-racking moments I've ever had in golf.”

It also left an indelible impression on Grace, among others. “When that happened and I had that experience, you know, then I knew this was what it's all about,” he said.

It’s rare in other sports when young players get to play alongside their boyhood idols.

Golf, however, affords them that opportunity -- perhaps more this year than any other in The Presidents Cup history.

“All the South Africans have looked up to Ernie for many years,” Richard Sterne said. “He was winning majors when we were still, what, 13 years old? It's quite something to be on the team with him.

“He's taken us under his wing quite well and he's always there to give us some advice when we need anything.”

Els, of course, has a different perspective.

“It's quite weird,” he said. “They were juniors and then they were amateurs and now we are professionals and now we're playing together. It's very weird. It's hard to explain.

“Louis and Branden and Charl; I've known them since they were so young, and now they are playing on the big stage. It's quite nice.”

What would be nice for Els and the rest of the International Team is a win.

Since the tie in 2003, the closest it has come to beating the Americans was a three-point loss in 2005 at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. The last three Presidents Cups have gone to the U.S. by margins of four, four and five points.

Rather than cheering for Els from outside the ropes this time, many of the International Team’s players will lean on him to try to end the drought.

Els has a 17-16-2 career record in The Presidents Cup, and he has had success at Muirfield Village, too, winning the 2004 Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance with a pair of 66s on the weekend.

“I've been kind of a tour guide (at Muirfield Village) so to speak, telling them where to hit it and how to play some of these par 3s and so forth,” Els said. “I think with Scotty, myself, Angel (Cabrera), guys who have played this course many times, I think we're giving our input.”

And as long as they do, others will listen.

“Everyone is looking up at him and Adam (Scott) for this week,” said Oosthuizen, who was also at Fancourt in 2003 and watched the finish at his home nearby on television. “We are looking at three of them and I think Ernie is the one that is probably going to affect all of us the most by giving us good motivational speeches and just getting us fired up. But as the young side that we are, I think we are all really fired up.”

Just like they were a decade ago.