THE PRESIDENTS CUP
Immelman hopes to build on momentum started by Els
April 07, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Ernie Els let out a deep sigh and took a sip of his drink late on Sunday after the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia. He laid one of his huge hands around the shoulder of good friend Trevor Immelman and a small smile started to appear as he pulled his fellow South African in a little tighter.
From a distance, there was no way to know what “The Big Easy” said at the time, but after a few words, Immelman faced his friend, smiled and nodded intently. With the benefit of hindsight, it could be perceived as a passing of the torch. To some extent, it was.
Els had, in fact, talked about how it was Immelman’s turn now. Of course, he had said similar things to each of his other assistants -- Mike Weir, Geoff Ogilvy and K.J. Choi. Els was just reiterating something he had stressed was needed as part of an overhaul of the team he had overseen. The captaincy should be a one-and-done scenario. And now it was up to them to carry things forward.
Outside of the inner circle of the team, the idea of Els not returning in 2021 seemed ludicrous in the aftermath of one of the best and competitive Presidents Cups on record. But fast-forward a few months and it is Immelman who has been tabbed as the International Team captain for the 2021 Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow. He is the man tasked with stopping the U.S. dominance that has stretched out to an 11-1-1 overall record, including a 16-14 win at Royal Melbourne after rallying on the final day.
“My relationship with Trevor goes way back and I have always had the utmost respect for him as a player and a person,” Els says. “Trevor was an invaluable member of our team and completely bought into what we were trying to do at Royal Melbourne, so it is gratifying to see him take this next step and lead the International Team.”
Els had spent two years overhauling the International Team set-up to build a new team culture and passion. One of his many efforts was creating a new logo for them to play under. He also spent hours figuring out game plans with the benefit of data and statistics in hopes of getting the most out of his team.
The result? His side almost took down one of the best American teams, on paper at least, in history. All 12 players on the U.S. side sat inside the top 24 in the world, five of them in the top 10. And that was without the injured Brooks Koepka, who was world No. 1 at the time.
Els’ team had just one player in the top 20 and bottomed out at 65, with an average of over 40. But through three of the five sessions, they set up a 9-5 lead and still sat 10-8 ahead heading to Sunday singles. It was the first lead heading to Sunday since 2003. Only a dogged Tiger Woods-led fightback on Sunday saw the U.S. extend their dominance, leaving the Internationals without a victory since their lone win at Royal Melbourne in 1998.
The new methods had clearly worked despite the end result. The International pairings were not at all what was expected, yet they took to Royal Melbourne with gusto and fashioned a lead that quite frankly could have, and probably should have, been larger except for some desperate U.S. heroics.
“All of us involved in the Presidents Cup in its early years just got so fed up with how hard it was to corral our team. But Ernie came along at the perfect time from a standpoint of being a legend and dominating presence of the game and he just said, ‘Enough is enough, we're going to start putting the right practices in place and do this properly,’ ” Immelman says.
“The respect that all people, from administrators all the way through to the players and fans, have for him meant it just fell into place and our team proved to themselves that when you do things right, you can come together and have a chance to play well.”
So much was his influence, Els was asked by countless people to reconsider giving up his one-and-done stance in the weeks that followed. But he stood firm, knowing he could trust Immelman and his other assistants to push things ahead.
“Ernie told us right from the start that he feels you should get one go at captain and that you should be all in for the two-year process, leave your mark on the team and then let somebody else take over from there,” Immelman adds.
“I know that it was a very difficult decision for him to step away because we did gain so much momentum and he thoroughly enjoyed what was one of the best weeks of his career. But my extreme respect for him grew even more as he was a man of his word and understood what's best for our team going forward.”
Of Els’ four assistants at Royal Melbourne, Immelman might not appear as the obvious choice. He is the youngest of the four and is the least-experienced Presidents Cup player, with his two appearances in 2005 and 2007. Ogilvy and Choi played three times, Weir five. Ogilvy also has significant match play acumen behind his name, having twice won the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.
But the decision is an astute one.
While the others would no doubt prove great captains at Quail Hollow and are full of knowledge when it comes to the new systems, it was Immelman who had been Els’ sounding board as each new idea blossomed prior to Royal Melbourne. You could say he was more intimately involved and, as such, the better choice to push it forward at this time. He has also served as a Junior Presidents Cup captain and knows the ins and outs of juggling the many off-course engagements.
“I don't want people for one second to think that this decision was made lightly or was made with just one Presidents Cup in mind,” Immelman says. “We have a plan going well forward with future venues in mind and how we expect things might progress.”
“We're trying to find the best way to give our team something a little extra for each Cup. And as of right now, where our team is in this particular moment, as a leadership group we felt like I was going to be the right guy for this time to continue moving us down the road.”
The Internationals will be the home team for the 2023 Presidents Cup, which means a course outside the U.S. While no venue has been officially announced, Weir would be the logical choice if the tournament is played in Canada. And if that happens, perhaps Ogilvy or Choi can step up in 2025 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. There is also a plan for veteran players to move into the captaincy system more deliberately. Adam Scott, for instance, is just seven months younger than Immelman, although he remains one of the International Team’s key players.
Immelman will be just 41 when he takes his team to Quail Hollow, the youngest International captain in history. That should fit nicely with a young International Team; the one in Melbourne was its youngest in Presidents Cup history. Eight of the 12 were in their 20s and perhaps being a little closer in age to those swinging the clubs will help Immelman relate. Scott says it will help the entire team.
“Though Ernie and I are very close, more than ever, I feel if I can make the team there is a very relatable and very close connection there with Trevor. We've known each other since we were 17 years old and played a lot of golf against each other, traveled together and socialized as friends for the last 20-plus years,” Scott explains.
“Those close connections, that is one of many things we've struggled to have in the past and that certainly favors the United States in their team play. You see it with Europe in the Ryder Cup – those player / captain connections have grown as part of their culture over many many years, probably since the ‘70s. So this feels like one more move in the right direction.”
And we are talking about a man with two PGA TOUR titles and 11 worldwide victories, including the 2008 Masters. While he could conceivably still be trying to make the team, he hasn’t played a significant schedule since finishing 204th in the FedExCup in 2015. Instead, he has made a transition into broadcasting with CBS – a role that should also help his captaincy as he will have a close eye on potential team members.
“You can't undervalue any of the small little bits and the close connection to me and others of my generation and the fact the players who didn’t play with him see him week in and week out doing the broadcasting and know Trevor is right on the pulse of everything that's happening on TOUR… that’s huge,” Scott adds.
Immelman doesn’t shy away from his youth being a factor, calling it “an interesting dynamic.”
“There could be advantages and disadvantages to it. So my job will be to expose the advantages,” he says.
“But it is also an exciting time for the Internationals with young stars like Sungjae Im, Cameron Smith, Joaquin Niemann now exposed to the team and others like Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who the world doesn’t know about yet, coming through. There are youngsters all over that have the potential to become world-beaters in the next year-and-a-half and that’s our hope.”
Some of those youngsters have already thrown their support behind the new captain, with Smith saying that Immelman “would create the same kind of impact as Ernie” and that “whenever Trevor has anything to say in the team room, all of us will certainly sit up and listen.”
Im also lavished praise, adding, “Trevor is passionate about this competition and I have no doubt he will do everything possible to prepare our team with the aim of winning the Presidents Cup. Ernie was brilliant as he inspired all of us with some of the things he introduced and we came really close to winning in Australia. I am sure Trevor will follow the same formula and implement some of his own ideas to get us ready to face the U.S. Team.”
The task ahead is a tough one. Taking on the Americans on their turf has been completely fruitless in the past for the Internationals, but Immelman has already begun preparations.
“It's quite frankly all I've thought of since I knew that I was going to be the next captain,” he says. “We have a system now and we have players that have bought into this and how it works and why it works. So from here on forward at the very least we will be more competitive.
“I believe this team is ready to win, but at the end of the day as a leader, all I want my team to know is that every decision that gets made is going to have them at the forefront. They're the ones that are going to win this Cup for us and at the end of the day no matter what happens, I'm going to have their back.”