Data-driven Els ready to shake things up
6 Min Read
Written by Ben Everill @BEverillPGATOUR
MELBOURNE, Australia – Ernie Els knows the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
It is why the International Team captain at the Presidents Cup has been so adamant his team needs to embrace some change as they look to win the biennial competition against the U.S. for the first time since 1998.
Els is perhaps the ultimate specialist when it comes to Royal Melbourne Golf Club where the Cup is being held this week. So when he talks, his team should listen.
He won the now-defunct Heineken Classic on the course in 2002, 2003 and 2004 before finishing runner-up in 2005. In the ’04 version, he opened with a 60 – to this day still the Composite Course record.
With input from the 15th Club – a data company that helped the European team win the Ryder Cup in Paris last year – Els has been delving into data and analytics to find his ultimate pairings on the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece.
They won’t be ones people expect. In fact, the pairings were not what Els nor his players expected either. But Els is a man of strong character. He is an imposing presence whose resume speaks for itself. Sitting with a 1-10-1 record in the Presidents Cup means a shakeup is needed.
“The numbers haven’t shown exactly what I expected. It’s funny. A lot of the personalities I wanted together; the data shows they are not compatible,” Els confirmed to PGATOUR.com.
“To convey that to the players has been tough. As you can expect, certain players want to play together -- but I can show them if it is not compatible. Now the good thing is the guys are taking that in and actually listening to me whereas in previous years guys were quite adamant who they wanted to play with.”
The balancing act for a captain in this regard can be difficult. Els needs to guard against the players feeling like their wishes aren’t being granted versus what he truly believes is best for the team. At times he admitted he might waver a little but deep down he knows he has to stick the course. No regrets.
In Paris a year ago, the Europeans went 3-1 down after the opening session. With the pressure on, captain Thomas Bjorn had to decide whether to stick with his data-driven plans or switch things up. He stuck solid and his side won the next session 4-0. By the end of the Four-Ball and Foursomes, Europe led 10-6 and went on to a dominant win.
The famous MoliWood team (Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood) was a data-backed pairing that went 4-0. Others put together with the backing of numbers included Henrik Stenson-Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy-Ian Poulter.
For the Internationals, Foursomes has been their Achilles heel. Counting all Presidents Cup matches, the Internationals are 152-192-48, with a Foursomes record of 37-69-18. The Internationals have held their own in Four-Balls (56-57-11) and, to a slightly lesser degree, Singles (59-66-19).
Els won’t reveal his International pairings until Wednesday afternoon (Tuesday midnight ET) when the five Four-Ball matches are revealed, but he’s not about to waver. Data takes precedent over personality.
“I just have to keep my head down and keep stressing to the team it is about just that -- the team,” Els said. “The guys know where they stand. It’s very clear of what we expect and what we are doing on Thursday and Friday, especially.
“I have changed a little bit here and there where if a guy is not far off and they fit personality-wise, but I am really sticking to my data. We have to try something different. We have to play the guys where the planning points.”
Els is relying on his veteran players to help push the cause. Adam Scott has played the last eight Presidents Cups and can be the voice to push it home. Louis Oosthuizen is another.
“Ernie and Scotty are two people you’re definitely going to listen to,” Oosthuizen said. “Ernie has worked hard to prepare for the competition. His record around the golf course is great. If anyone is going to know the best plan of attack, it is him.”
Els says he has full confidence in his team despite the fact it has seven Presidents Cup rookies. He can see the hunger and enthusiasm breaking through. With an average age of 28.9, his is the youngest team in Presidents Cup history.
“They have a desire. I can see it in their eyes and in their attitude – it shows that they really want it,” Els said. “This means a lot to us. When you have that, you just need to guide it and pair them up correctly. That’s my job. Try to get the right pairings, the right chemistry and give them the tools to be the best they can be.
“We have more than enough team spirit; no one needs to worry about that. They’re definitely great individuals, but they have bought into the team and its togetherness.”
Abraham Ancer is one of the seven Presidents Cup rookies on the International Team. He's buying into Els' new methods.
"He's trying to do everything possible ... to give us the best chance to win the Cup, and it's good," Ancer said. "You can see how passionate he is, you can see how invested he is in the team. I think it's unbelievable."
Course preparation is another key planning factor for Els. Royal Melbourne is part of the famed sandbelt region in Australia and the MacKenzie gem brings with it the need to play old-school golf. It is not a course to be overpowered without potential consequences.
Instead, imagination and finesse is needed. The cerebral approach to the course can be foreign to some modern players, but Els is ready with his wisdom. His 60 from 2004 was nearly a 59 and is still talked about by locals as a golfing miracle.
“I just love this course,” Els said. “I just loved the feel of it right from the start. I love the greens; I had never seen greens like that. I love the bunkers cut into the greens and I love the left to rights, the right to lefts, the imagination you need.
“I was comfortable from the start there. It was just like I could sense the shot that MacKenzie wanted me to play. Some courses you just can’t feel it but there I could.”
The International Team has a 10-minute compilation video of Els’ effort in 2004 as a guide to use. Scott didn’t need a reminder, having played with him on that fateful day.
Els is trying not to overload the players with advice but is available when people ask. He is sending them out to get their own feel but also making sure they aren’t lured by any of its subtle traps.
“Patience and finesse are certainly key factors. You need discipline around the course and just a good solid short game,” Els explained. “You have to play away from flags so that is where the discipline comes in. Certain flags and certain conditions the flag is a destination, not a target. Certain holes you don’t really need a driver you are better off playing for position. You have to iron yourself around the place.
“This is not your normal American-designed course where you just smash it all over the place. The whole key is the entrance into greens, your shot-making, and using your ability to manage yourself around the golf course.”
On Sunday, we’ll find out if the planning and experience ultimately lead to an upset win. Even if it doesn’t, the time had come to embrace the change.
In Els they must trust.