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The future of the International Presidents Cup team is in great shape if the 2020 Masters leaderboard is any indication.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the next chance for the Internationals to finally get over the top of the U.S. team to 2022 there was a slight fear the momentum gained from their impressive fight at Royal Melbourne in 2019 might be halted.
But last week at Augusta National gives heart to all International fans. Sure, Dustin Johnson, who won at a record 20-under will no doubt be part of the U.S. Team they’ll come against at Quail Hollow, but nine International eligible players, young and old alike, finished in the top 20. A couple of veterans in Louis Oosthuizen (T23) and Charl Schwartzel (T25) also showed glimpses of their best selves.
“It was quite an impressive week for the guys and they’ll be able to put to good use what they experienced going forward,” 2022 International captain Trevor Immelman said.
“That type of performance was exactly what I'm looking for. I'm looking for the youngsters that we have around the world, and particularly those seven rookies we had in Melbourne, to use the extra year we’ve been given to get experience under the most pressure filled situations.”
Cameron Smith, Sungjae Im, Dylan Frittelli and Abraham Ancer in particular showed the next generation International star, many of whom were unearthed in Melbourne, will be locked and loaded and ready to rumble when their next chance comes against the U.S.
“It’s really good to have all of those guys up there in really big tournaments. It goes to show that when we put our minds to it, we can we can do pretty well, so that's a good thing to have,” Smith said.
“The U.S. team is always very good but we have the talent to compete and win and if we play as a team, like we did in Melbourne, we will always be a chance.”
Let’s break down some of the achievements at Augusta National.
Cameron Smith (T2) – The 27-year-old Australian put on a short game masterclass throughout the week at Augusta National showing a tenacity to compete that International team fans were already familiar with. Smith was trailing Justin Thomas in singles in Melbourne by three holes but refused to be beaten, fighting back to win on the 17th hole.
With Thomas a spectator once again Smith finished the third round at the Masters with three incredible up and downs to stay within striking distance of the Green Jacket. Then on Sunday, as he chased after Johnson, Smith produced two incredible birdies from positions most thought he’d be facing a tough time to make par.
Last season’s Sony Open in Hawaii champion faced what appeared a certain punch out to, at best, a greenside bunker on the par-4 seventh hole after his drive leaked right into the trees. But Smith saw a tiny window up through the branches. He decided to gamble. Swinging as hard as he could he launched the ball into orbit and it cleared through the debris and onto the putting surface from 120 yards to 10-feet before making the putt. “I wasn’t here to finish second,” Smith said of his aggressive play. Smith then hit a brilliant approach from the pine straw on the par-4 ninth to a few feet and nailed the putt to be within two of the lead at the turn.
Ultimately the Australian would fall short of Johnson but on the way became the first player ever to shoot four rounds in the 60s during the Masters.
Cameron Smith drains birdie putt on No. 1 at the Presidents Cup
Sungjae Im (T2) – No player got closer to Johnson on Sunday than Im. The 22-year-old South Korean pulled within one shot through five holes of the final round and had the American starting to wonder if another final round meltdown was on its way.
The fact he contended so well was incredible when you factor in the fact Im hit just 45 of 72 greens in regulation, T51 of the 60 players to make the cut. Johnson for example his 15 more greens over the week.
It shows the youngster knows how to find a way to get things done even without his best stuff. And that if you give him a challenge, he’s up for it. He did it by leading the field in putting, needing just 102 putts for the week. Smith was the next best player, with 108.
“This is definitely going to be a memorable Masters for me, not only because this is my first appearance, but my initial goal at the start of the week was just to make a cut and get into the weekend. So to finish tied for second is unbelievable,” the former PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year and current Honda Classic champion said.
Sungjae Im holes chip from 89 feet for Shot of the Day
Dylan Frittelli (T5) – The South African is certainly on the radar of Immelman, a man Frittelli looked up to as a youngster. He wasn’t part of the team in 2019 but he already has a win on the PGA TOUR and the now 30-year-old is coming into his prime.
“Frittelli is somebody I'm keeping a close eye on and it’s clear he’s starting to feel more comfortable here in the United States,” Immelman says. “He got his first win at the John Deere and his physical and mental game is improving under the big spotlight.”
What he also brings is length, a quality that is becoming more and more valuable in the modern game. Only Bryson DeChambeau averaged further off the tee of those who made the cut and that helped him deal with the fact he hit fewer fairways than those 60 players.
“Obviously it's a big step for me to finish top 10 in a major. I'm proud of myself and I can build on this now heading into next year,” Frittelli said. “I made a big investment in driving distance trying to hit it longer and straighter, and that's definitely paid off. I was hitting the driver really well. Maybe not straight but pretty long. That helped on many holes.”
C.T. Pan (T7) – One of the debutants in Melbourne, Pan showed he doesn’t intend to be a one hit wonder. The 29-year-old was incredible through the first two rounds carding just a lone bogey to go with an eagle and seven birdies to be just one off the lead.
While round three was a struggle and without a birdie, Pan showed great mettle to surge again on Sunday. When he could’ve just cruised to the finish, especially after a bogey on the par-3 12th, Pan instead dug deep and birdied four of the last six.
“I struggled the whole year, so this is definitely a big step up for me and a big confidence boost,” he said.
C.T. Pan's near eagle on No. 12 at the Presidents Cup
Corey Conners (T10) – The 28-year-old Canadian was on the radar for the International team in 2019 only to fall just short. He wasn’t on any radar at Augusta National after an opening round rollercoaster 74 though.
But perhaps he should have been. Conners rebounded with impressive vigor. Making 17 birdies over the final three rounds.
“This is where you want to be every year. If you're here, you've done a lot of really good things,” Conners said. “There's a lot of us trending in the right direction. So we'll keep packing away and see what happens.”
Marc Leishman (T13) – The 37-year-old posted the equal best score of the final round and given where he’d come from, not having an over par round all week, was a welcome change.
Not since his win at the Farmers Insurance Open in January had Leishman got through four rounds without being over par and his best finish since the sport returned in June had been a 29th – in a 30-man field.
“It’s nice to get a bit of a result up on the board,” Leishman said. “I was hitting the ball as good as I ever have for most of the week but just couldn’t get the putts to drop.”
He led the field with three eagles and only three players hit more greens in regulation than the Australian. Sadly he ranked near last in putting.
Marc Leishman's approach lands within 7 feet at the Presidents Cup
Hideki Matsuyama (T13) – Just one bogey over the first two rounds had Matsuyama, already an International team Veteran, just one shot off the 36-hole lead. He’s been plotting his way around Augusta National since he was a teenager but the now 28-year-old couldn’t find his best stuff over the weekend. He still proved he will likely be a staple the team will be built around.
Hideki Matsuyama's solid birdie to win hole on No. 17 at the Presidents Cup
Abraham Ancer (T13) – The feisty Mexican is full of heart and continues to knock on the door of victory. After surging to the halfway lead Ancer was good enough Saturday to get into the final group for Sunday’s Green Jacket chase. On Sunday he faced a short birdie putt on the par-5 second hole that he pushed ever so slightly. The miss seemed to be the killer for Ancer who fell away with four bogeys in the next five holes but despite the lapse he still showed he can contend with the best.
“Definitely a lot of lessons… it's a great learning experience. I hate to say that. I wish I played really well, but I have to take all the positives about this week. It's my first Masters, and I had three really good rounds, and I'm just going to be really focusing on that and taking that into the next one, which is not that far off, five months from now,” Ancer said.
“I felt great, and I wasn't really too nervous. I feel like I've been getting better every year little by little…I'm happy with my finish but there's definitely so many things and especially days like this that show me how much I can improve, and I'll be working on that.”
Abraham Ancer highlights from 2019 Presidents Cup
Sebastian Munoz (T19) – Sitting seventh with a round to go showed this Columbian 27-year-old can mix it with the best when he’s switched on. If not for a lapse in concentration on Sunday that saw back-to-back double bogeys on the sixth and seventh holes Munoz would have been pushing towards a top 10 finish.
It might be two years until Quail Hollow but the future looks bright for Immelman and his team.
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