Melbourne, Australia: Ernie Els has kept the door open for Asian stars to earn a potential captain’s pick for the International Team at December’s Presidents Cup against the United States Team.
Els said he will be keeping close tabs on Thais Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Jazz Janewattananond and Koreans Im Sung-jae and An Byeong-hun before he determines his four captain’s selections in early November.
After the top-eight players were finalised through a one-year qualifying process last week, South African Els said he would not hesitate to call up more rookies to fill his team’s roster despite already having four debutants – China’s Li Haotong, CT Pan of Chinese Taipei, Mexican Abraham Ancer and Australian Cameron Smith – through automatic selection.
“I’ve said to the guys in the meetings that I’m not scared to choose rookies. If I see a rookie playing really good golf and he’s up for it, then I’ll go for him,” said Els in a media teleconference to discuss his team’s preparation for the team match play showpiece to be held at Royal Melbourne Golf Club from December 9-15.
“But they’ve got to really show me something to go down the list that far, because I’ve got guys knocking on the door like Jason (Day) and I’ve got Justin Harding and I’ve got Jazz (Janewattananond), who’s won twice on the Asian Tour this year. I’ve got Im Sung-jae, who’s played 34 events on the PGA Tour and made it to the Tour Championship as a rookie.
“I’ll speak to the top eight and we’re going to have a lot of discussion about who their new four friends are going to be because they’re going to have to play together and blend as a team.”
Jazz, 23, missed out on automatic selection by two rungs on the team’s points list while a knee injury scuppered Kiradech’s fight to gain a top-eight spot despite safely keeping his PGA Tour card through three top-five finishes, including twice at World Golf Championships events.
The Korean trio of An, a former US Amateur champion, 21-year-old Im and Sung Kang, who claimed a first PGA Tour win in May, are also on Els’ radar.
“Sung-jae has been playing on the PGA Tour Tour, he’s played 34 events. He won the Korn Ferry Tour last year … hopefully Sung-jae keeps playing good and gets himself on the team. I’m definitely looking at him,” said Els.
“Sung Kang was playing well, won in Dallas, and was looking really good. His form has slipped a little bit. I love his attitude towards the game. I even look at Ben An, his game is really great. He almost won in Greensboro this year, and he’s had some great finishes. He’s one of the supreme ball strikers around the world, which I really love and which you need to do in Melbourne. Those two guys I’m definitely looking at, especially Ben An. He’s on kind of my favourite list.
“A lot of these guys are going to be playing the big events in the next couple of weeks and months. Kiradech, he’s kept his card very comfortably in the US. To keep your card on this Tour is tough, especially as a rookie, and a lot of these guys have had that pressure on them this year. So Kiradech has done very well. Jazz is having a great year. I played with him in Malaysia this year, saw his game from close by. He’d be great around Royal Melbourne.”
Els keeps emphasising to his team members that the Presidents Cup could be a life-changing experience, especially given that the International Team has won the event only once previously, at Royal Melbourne in 1998.
“I really hit it right to them that this could be one of the biggest events of their lifetimes because we are such a diverse team from around the world. We have huge following. We have people from Asia, from Mexico now, we’ve got possibly Canada. We have an audience of billions of people if you look at the countries’ numbers,” said Els.