Presidents Cup: International captain Trevor Immelman aiming to stun Team USA
And if the task of preventing a ninth straight US victory wasn’t daunting enough, first-time captain Trevor Immelman must make history by overturning American home advantage with a team made up predominantly of tournament rookies.
Three years ago, the 2008 Masters champion was among Ernie Els’ assistant captains as the International Team saw a lead agonizingly slip away on the last day in Melbourne, Australia, the site of their sole victory in 1998.
Having taken the reins from his South African compatriot shortly after, Immelman has since spent countless hours strategizing how to rewrite the usual script at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte this week.
“We’re not blind, we know exactly what the record is but, in a way, it motivates us,” Immelman told CNN’s Don Riddell.
“In 2019, we felt like we took a huge step forward from a team aspect, from a franchise aspect, so to speak.
“We slowly but surely started trying to build this house and make it solid and on a firm foundation because we’re looking not just to this week, but cups down the line as well.”
Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, the biennial cup sees the two 12-man teams face off across 18 paired team matches before 12 singles match-ups close the tournament on Sunday. Each match is worth one point, with the first team to reach 15.5 points crowned champions.
Six members of each roster are filled with automatic qualifiers, leaving respective captains Immelman and Davis Love III to hand-pick the remaining half. The International player pool extends to anyone outside the United States and Europe, with this year’s lineup spanning South Korea (4), Canada (2), Australia (2), South Africa, Japan, Colombia, and Chile.
A playing member of the 2005 and 2007 squads, Immelman believed previous groups had often struggled for cohesion before Els’ leadership. Without a logo or team colors until 2019, Els’ adoption of the shield emblem and black and gold livery built towards the larger goal of giving the team an identity.
“He [Els] was the perfect leader at the perfect time with enough pull and sway to be able to make some changes and set us off on this course,” Immelman said.
“It’s very difficult when you’re pulling players from seven, eight, nine different countries and they come here representing their country rather than representing this one team. Now that we have the shield, these players come here and that’s what we play for.”
For Immelman, such a shift means the International team can now avoid falling into the “trap” of choosing pairings for the events based on shared nationality as opposed to tactical fit for course and opponents.
“One of the things that we’ve changed over the last few years is breaking down those cultural barriers so that any player can play with any other player on the team,” he said.
“We can see that we’re big underdogs on paper and so we need to be very smart with what we do with our pairings. There’s a lot of things that go into those decisions to make sure that we can try and find every little edge that is out there to put ourselves and our players in the best position possible to try and shock the world at the end of the week.”
Given the makeup of the two teams, it’s difficult to argue against the underdog label. Eight members of the International Team will make their Presidents Cup debut in Charlotte, while Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama represent the only major champions in the group following Masters victories in 2013 and 2021 respectively.
Japan’s Matsuyama is the highest ranked player on the team at World No.17. Only two players on the US team are ranked lower, with five of the world’s top 10 among the star-studded ensemble, and World No.1 Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Thomas boasting seven major titles between them.
Scheffler and Morikawa are among the six American first-time players, yet still come in with a combined nine PGA Tour wins. By contrast on the International side, fellow cup debutants Taylor Pendrith of Canada and Mito Pereira are still chasing their first Tour titles.
So how do you go about preparing such rookies for the baptism of fire that is a Presidents Cup on away ground? You start, Immelman says, “just by loving them.”
“You put your arms around them, you make them know that you love them and that you’re there for them,” the South African explained.
“Am I going to be able to say something to them or give them a magic pill that will take away their nerves and anxiety and excitement on the first tee? No chance, that is not out there. … (But) these guys have logged thousands and thousands of hours since they started this game, honing their skills, getting themselves to elite level on the PGA Tour. They have what it takes. They know exactly how to play this game and what needs to happen. So you really just tell them to trust themselves, trust the process, trust the work you’ve put in.”
For Immelman, however, the most important advice to his players is simply to enjoy the experience, because their captain will be relishing every second.
After being sidelined by multiple injuries during his playing career, the 42-year-old has found a “second career” in broadcasting, and he’s slated to become CBS Sport’s lead golf analyst next year. Fourteen years on from pipping Tiger Woods to Masters glory, Immelman still pinches himself at the victory, his love for the game as strong as ever.
And whatever the result come Sunday, that romance will continue, with Immelman leaving Charlotte having followed in the footsteps of South African golfing royalty Els and Gary Player in captaining Team International.
“It has been a crazy ride — at times I cannot believe how fortunate I’ve been,” Immelman reflected. “I feel humbled. You take a look at the list of captains that have come before me for the international team, all legends of the game, all heroes of mine, people that I’ve looked up to throughout my life.
“If you can’t enjoy this, I’m not sure you can enjoy anything … the golf course and the build-up is like something I’ve never seen before in my life. It is going to be electric out there. We cannot wait to be a part of it.”