Babineau: Southern Africa contingent key for Int'ls

Ernie Els says that the younger players are keeping the clubhouse loose for the International squad.

Ernie Els says that the younger players are keeping the clubhouse loose for the International squad.

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DUBLIN, Ohio -- Two days in, and we still are not sure what the options are for some tasty karoo lamb chops and a good old-fashioned South African braai, or barbecue, right here in the middle of the Buckeye State.

But this much we do know at the 10th Presidents Cup at Jack’s Place: If captain Nick Price and his International squad are really, truly – and finally – going to get their Charlie Brown-like fortunes reversed, and make this biennial event competitive, then it’s likely a contingent from southern Africa that provides the key to opening the door.

Six – count ‘em, six – players from southern Africa are here to play for the Internationals this week: South Africa’s Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace, Richard Sterne and Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge.

It’s another Zimbabwean, Price, long ago was adopted as South African back home, who will lead the way, and he is joined by two assistants from Zimbabwe, Mark McNulty and Tony Johnstone, who are characters in their own right.

Translation: The International team room will not lack for fun and laughter this week.

“It's quite lively,” said Els, who is the unofficial godfather of the International side. This will be Els’ eighth Presidents Cup, and despite playing for a side that has won only once, he has managed to maintain a record over .500 (17-16-2).

“These boys are quite lively. They remind me of myself when I was in my 20s. They like to have a go (a good time), you know what I mean. It's nice to have them around, keeping the energy up.”

In addition, the team has three players from Australia (Adam Scott, Marc Leishman, Jason Day), so it provides a pretty stout nucleus from the Southern Hemisphere. It’s certainly a stark and refreshing change for a “Rest of the World” team that sometimes has more translators than assistant captains. The 2000 International team, for instance, which was trounced by 11 points at RTJ Golf Club in Virginia, featured players from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Paraguay, Japan, Zimbabwe, Fiji and Canada. That wasn’t a unified golf squad so much as it was a gathering of the United Nations. So coming together, at times, has presented a challenge, to say the least.

"I think in the past, there was a lot of different countries,” Schwartzel said, “and it's very difficult to get everyone sort of gelling together. With us . . . it feels like a team a lot earlier than it did last time around.”

The development of three South Africa players – Oosthuizen, Grace and Schwartzel – was touched directly by the Ernie Els Foundation in South Africa (more deeply with Oosthuizen and Grace, who received financial backing from the Foundation). All of the South African players at this week’s Presidents Cup have grown up admiring Els’ success as he captured major championships and became a world-class player, and they’ve tried to emulate that success themselves.

Grace was 15 years old and standing atop a mound near the second green at Fancourt in South Africa when Els and Tiger Woods went toe-to-toe over three sudden-death holes trying to decide the 2003 Presidents Cup. Eventually, darkness fell and it was declared that the cup would be shared (the Presidents Cup playoff, in fact, no longer exists). But for Grace, a light went on that day.

“That’s when I knew I wanted to play golf,” Grace said.

Here at Muirfield Village this week, Grace even has picked Els’ brain about that day, grilling him about the experience. He wanted to know if Els was nervous facing that 6-footer for a halve in near darkness, in South Africa, with the Presidents Cup on the line.

Els laughed retelling the story. “What do you think?” he asked Grace.

For Els to see these players rise from raw juniors in his home country to becoming his teammates at the Presidents Cup, well, it certainly stirs emotions. The one word he continually used to describe the evolution?

“Weird,” Els said. “It’s very weird.”

“I mean, Louis and Branden and Charl . . . I've known them since they were so young, and now they are playing on the big stage. It's quite nice.”

So if the Internationals are to taste success this week, it will be Els and Scott, the Masters champion, standing up as team leaders, but a new group behind them that will have to pick up a shovel, or golf club in this instance, and get to work.

The International side includes seven rookies. Schwartzel, for one, who has only been part of one losing side himself, sees that as a bonus. Outside of Els and Scott, there is very little scar tissue among this group.

“You know, the guys, they don't have really bad feelings,” Schwartzel said. “They haven't been on the losing side. For them, it's all fresh and new. And you know, maybe a little bit more hungry.

“We feel we're sort of the new generation maybe, you could say. If you want to take the Presidents Cup to the next level, it's up to us to do it.”

And if they are hungry enough, and somehow do win as considerable underdogs on foreign soil this week, then watch out. The celebration would be epic. And it most surely would include a South African braai for all to remember.

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