Els' faith in Ishikawa pays off for Internationals

Ernie Els of the International team and teammate Ryo Ishikawa discuss a shot on the 18th hole during the Day Three morning foursome matches of the 2011 Presidents Cup.

Ernie Els of the International team and teammate Ryo Ishikawa discuss a shot on the 18th hole during the Day Three morning foursome matches of the 2011 Presidents Cup.

MELBOURNE, Australia – There was a huge chunk of him that ached for the team effort in a crushing foursomes session. But deep down, these players are immersed in a sport that is totally an individual quest, so for that reason, Ernie Els could feel a sliver of satisfaction.

His decision to maintain a partnership with young Ryo Ishikawa, questioned by many, proved profitable when they earned a 1-up victory over Bill Haas and Matt Kuchar. It was the lone point for the International team as they got waxed, 4-1, to fall behind by a whopping 11-6 count. What was needed were afternoon heroics in the four-ball session, but for a brief few moments, Els could bask in the comfort of a decision gone well.

“It’s what I kept telling my captain,” Els said, pointing to Greg Norman, who sat near the 18th green, “I know it didn’t look good, losing the first two matches, but I could feel (Ishikawa) coming along.”

At 42, Els is the spiritual leader of this International crew, a globe-trotting icon who is playing in this event for the seventh time. Only once has he posted a losing record in these matches (2000, he was a stunning 0-5) and while he could have circled the easier route and asked for countryman/protege Charl Schwartzel or countryman/great friend Retief Goosen as a partner here, Els wanted Ishikawa.

It was not an easy task, given that the 20-year-old phenom from Japan was not only seeing Royal Melbourne for the first time, but he arrived a day late.

“This is a golf course where you’ve got to really know where to hit it,” Els said, and shot after shot, hole after hole for two days, it was Els who looked like Tom Brady out there. Els’ caddie, Dan Quinn, could be considered inexperienced, especially here at Royal Melbourne, and ditto Ishikawa’s bagman, Hiroyuki Kato, so it fell on his shoulders.

Thankfully, they are massive.

Three times a winner when the Heineken Classic was played at Royal Melbourne and owner of a round of 60 here, Els perhaps covered more territory Thursday and Friday than anyone in the matches. In four-ball, he would play his shot, then walk to Ishikawa’s ball and point the way.

From 2-up through four Thursday, Els and Ishikawa were crushed by Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson, 4 up.

Friday featured much of the same, Els and Ishikawa losing again to Simpson and Watson, 3 and 1.

They had trailed for 23 of their 33 holes and nary a soul would have thought the big South African would be alongside the “Bashful Prince” for the third session. Yet Els pleaded patience.

“I could see Ryo was finding his feet on the golf course,” Els said. “He started striking it so well. Today, he believed.”

Most notably, Ishikawa on the greens suddenly showed the steely nerves that youngsters are heralded for. His birdie putt at the 11th matched the American birdie and kept the Internationals just one down. When Haas and Kuchar walked off the 14th green with that one-hole edge, Els and Ishikawa had trailed for 34 of their 47 holes and suddenly red flags were all over the scoreboard.

Simpson and Watson had continued to roll, whipping Geoff Ogilvy and Robert Allenby. Hunter Mahan and and David Toms had blitzed Goosen and Schwartzel. Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson had rallied to beat Adam Scott and K.J. Choi. Phil Mickelso and Jim Furyk were on the cusp of defeating Aaron Baddeley and Jason Day.

The International mood matched their flag – blue.

But into that grayness came a small silver lining because after the Americans three-putted the par 5 15th to lose the hole and allow the Internationals to square the match, Ishikawa stood over a 3 footer to win the 16th.

He made it.

Then at 17, with the Americans having been conceded a birdie thanks to Kuchar’s brilliant approach, Ishikawa stood over a 16-footer to maintain the 1-up lead.

He made that, too.

Then at 18, with the Americans having been conceded their par, Ishikawa stood over a slippery, downhill 3 1/2-footer to win the match.

Yes, that fell, too.

“His putting reminds me a little bit of myself, back in the day,” Els said, his wide smile a testament to the joy he felt. True, his team has been trounced to fall five points behind, but Els needed this for his psyche. After a 2010 season that saw him return to the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour, he had struggled all of this 2011 campaign and he doesn’t deny that he’s sick of losing these Presidents Cups.

But in Ishikawa, Els has embraced a young man who perhaps is a mystery to most of the golf world, though players genuinely gush about him.

“The man has got so much heart,” Els said. “Even in our first two matches, we ran u against Bubba and Wbb and they played great. (Friday) was (Friday); it was a difficult day.”

So Els pleaded with Norman to give them another go and as they walked up the 16th fairway, the supportive Aussie crowd implored a man whose best years may be behind him, though he remains a hugely popular figure.

“Come on, Ernie,” they screamed, and you could almost feel the urgency. If there was any International hope, it hinged on Els and Ishikawa winning the match.

True, they had the door opened big time by the Americans – that ugly three-putt bogey at the 15th, Kuchar’s wild drive left at the 16th, and Haas’ missed 6-footer for par at the 16th green. But the bottom line to this match was the nerves of steel shown by Ishikawa on Royal Melbourne’s devilish greens.

Especially at 17, because with Kuchar having nearly holed his approach, Els had only one hope with his approach. “Just give him a chance to putt it, that’s all I said to myself,” Els said.

He did and when the young man from Japan converted the chance, Els stood at the front of the green and raised both hands.

It was one small point. But it was a big chunk of vindication.

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