An obvious choice and a relative surprise highlighted Ernie Els‘ at-large picks for next month’s Presidents Cup as the International team captain rounded out his 12-man squad Wednesday night.
Jason Day, 32, despite recent form that saw him not finish in the top 20 for the past four months, was a slam-dunk pick given his stature as a major championship winner, former No. 1-ranked player in the world and being from Australia — where the matches will be played.
Chile’s Joaquin Niemann was less clear, but he won recently on the PGA Tour at Military Tribute at the Greenbrier and Els has continually spoken highly of him. Niemann, who turns 21 on Friday, has been a pro for 18 months. He won the 2018 Latin American Amateur Championship, which gave him an invitation to the Masters.
The other two picks were South Korea’s Sung-jae Im, 21 — the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year — and Canada’s Adam Hadwin, 32, who shot 59 at the 2017 Career Builder Challenge and won his lone PGA Tour title that year at the Valspar Championship. He also played in the Presidents Cup that year.
“This was very difficult for me,” Els said. “There are numerous guys I had to call. Branden Grace, Ben An, Corey Conners and some other guys who were really close. It was very difficult to make those calls.
“But I had to look at guys’ long-term form, guys who have played well for a while. Looking at all the stats, I wanted good driving, good ballstriking, obviously, but putting is very important. In my experience in these Cups, it comes down to pressure putting. So putting is a critical attribute.”
Els’ selections joined the eight players who automatically made the squad in August: Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott, Marc Leishman, Cameron Smith, Abraham Ancer, Li Haotong, Louis Oosthuizen and C.T. Pan.
Els, 50, played in the competition eight times and holds a 20-18-2 record despite being on just one winning team.
The competition is Dec. 12-15 at Royal Melbourne, where the International side will be a huge underdog. Six of the American players who automatically made the team are ranked among the top 10 in the world, and if captain Tiger Woods picks himself, that would be eight of the top 11. Scott, at 17th, is the highest-ranked International player.
Woods, who would become the first playing captain at the Presidents Cup since Hale Irwin in the inaugural event in 1994, is scheduled to make his four picks Thursday night. He’s looking at Tony Finau, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Gary Woodland, Kevin Na and Kevin Kisner, among others.
The U.S. holds a 10-1-1 record in the competition, with the only defeat coming at the 1998 Presidents Cup, also played at Royal Melbourne. The teams tied in 2003, and in 2015, the United States’ 15½ to 14½ victory was the closest outcome going back to the tie in South Africa. In 2017, the U.S. won easily, nearly earning enough points on Saturday to clinch and prevailing 19-11.