June 19, 2018: A lot’s happened since my last contribution as the Asian Tour’s official international ambassador, a badge of honour that I continue to wear with pride.
Probably the biggest news is being nominated as the captain of the Internationals for the next Presidents Cup to be played at Royal Melbourne in 2019. Honestly, there’s so much about that sentence that excites me!
For one thing, Royal Melbourne is right up there among my all-time favourite courses. Aside from its classic design credentials and legendary putting surfaces, it’ll always have a special place in my heart with us having won the Presidents Cup there in 1998 and also my three straight Heineken Classics wins from 2002 to 2004. The prospect of going back there as captain of the International Team is kind of a dream job, you could say.
The Presidents Cup has from the get-go held significant relevance from an Asian Tour perspective. Of course, there was an Asian-born player (Japan’s Tsukasa Watanabe) in the inaugural competition in 1994. And there have been countless others to have followed in his footsteps. In fact, we had five on the 2015 team alone. That was the year the Presidents Cup visited Asia for the first time, so that was a special week for Asian Tour golf. It’s fair to expect there will be another strong contingent on the plane to Australia in 18 months’ time and perhaps from a wider spread of countries, too.
Really it’s too early to speculate who might make the team, but obviously there are a few names that jump out. We’ll start with Shubhankar Sharma (pictured with me, above) because he and I go way back. He attended a golf clinic I was hosting during the 2008 Indian Masters; he was 10 years old and you could see he was a serious talent. I told him then I thought he’d be a great player, and he obviously listened! No, seriously, what he’s done in the last 12 months is impressive.
Li Haotong is another fine young player who springs to mind. He only just missed out on making the team in 2017 and actually, we were paired together in the final round of last year’s Open Championship at Birkdale. He has a fearless approach, a nice attitude. The wind was picking up that day and he wasn’t backing off. It was a hell of a round. It would really make waves him being the first Chinese player to be on the team.
Kiradech has been a very good player for a while now; beautiful natural golf swing, I like the way he plays. Hideki Matsuyama and Si Woo Kim, who’s having a strong year on the PGA TOUR, have tasted Presidents Cup action before and they’ll be keen to play again. Then there’s Satoshi Kodaira who won for the first time on the PGA TOUR this year, so the Presidents Cup has suddenly popped up on his radar, too! Maybe Korea’s Jeunghun Wang, he’s a heck of a player, the youngest player ever to win back-to-back European Tour events. Or Byeong Hun An.
We could go on, but you get the idea. Between now and next summer any one of a number of players could get on a hot streak and play their way on to the team. The ever-increasing strength of golf in Asia is obvious and, you know, there are so many other talented players from China, India, Thailand, Malaysia, basically right across Asia, all in their 20s, that are going to be in the frame for future Presidents Cup teams. It’s an exciting prospect.
Anyway, as I’ve said, we have got a while to go. The race for qualification doesn’t even begin until the end of August, when points accumulated on the Official World Golf Ranking over a 12-month period will determine the identity of the leading eight players on the team. We’ll then have four Captain’s picks to make up the final dozen.
Obviously, the conversations between myself and the captain’s assistants have started already. We’re comfortable with the new format and the one year qualification period is a good change. We can properly start to see where our guys are at after the 2019 Tour Championship and on wards. Also, with the World Cup being played at Royal Melbourne, that’s interesting for us because some of the guys playing that week will be contenders for the International team. Before that, we want to actively encourage the players to play together as much as possible, maybe have some get-togethers. That’s important, especially for the rookies. So that’s on my agenda. Ultimately, we’re going to do everything we can in terms of tactics and team selections that give us the best chance of getting the Cup back.
To finish, one of the other great things is this is going to feel like kind of a home game for us. Hopefully we’ll have a couple of Aussies on the side, too, and the home crowds are going to come out in huge numbers to cheer us on. Melbourne is a great city, a real sports’ city, and the atmosphere is going go be incredible. I honestly can’t wait.