I Was There – 1998 Presidents Cup

Royal Melbourne Golf Club holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I’ve won tournaments, shot my lowest round, and celebrated the International team’s lone triumph at The Presidents Cup, in 1998. In December, I’ll captain our side as we attempt to regain the golden trophy there.

For four years, beginning in 2002, this Sand Belt gem felt like my home course since we played the Heineken Classic there. I got so familiar and so comfortable with Royal Melbourne that within minutes of signing my opening-round scorecard in the 2004 Heineken Classic, the gold paint was already drying on the honors board outside the locker room celebrating my record for the Composite Course.

Presidents Cup
Els with the victorious 1998 International Presidents Cup team (Photo via Getty Images)

The memories of that round remain sharp. Every shot I hit on the front nine seemed to pepper the flag. I was out in 29 after an eagle at the 9th, then just kept going with a string of birdies at 10–14 to get to 12 under. Suddenly, I felt butterflies in the pit of my stomach.

The 15th was a real blow. I hit 2-iron off the tee for position, but it bounded into the rough. From there I had a semi-blind, down-breeze shot with a flier lie and it came out hot. I missed the green long and left and made bogey. I remember walking to the next tee saying to myself, “Man, you’ve got to step it up now.” I made birdie and the game was on again: I had to birdie one of the last two holes to shoot 59.

On 17, I split the fairway, but my 9-iron approach came up half-a-club short, dead on line, and I settled for par. On 18, I bombed my drive, but, with my adrenaline pumping, I wedged to the back fringe. It was a tough putt to make—a 25-foot downhill slider—and I overcooked the pace and break.

That is as close to perfection as I’ve ever played. I hit 17 greens and took only 25 putts. I was thrilled to set the course record, but in the back of my mind I knew I could have—I should have!—shot 59. I remember saying to my caddie, Ricci Roberts, “Who knows when I’ll get such a golden opportunity to do that again?” I never have.

Personal triumph is rewarding, but nothing compares to the shared joy of winning a team competition. At the 1998 Presidents Cup, we didn’t have one bad session. We jumped to a 7–3 lead after Day One, which really got the crowd fired up. They adopted Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama, “the Smilin’ Assassin,” as one of their own.

He had a bounce in his step all week as he smiled his way to a 5–0 mark, giving our team its biggest lift Saturday in alternate-shot play with Craig Parry when he sank a 35-foot birdie putt at the 17th to even the match against Fred Couples and Tiger Woods. Parry won it a hole later with a 50-foot chip-in for birdie. It’s moments like these that can create a wave of momentum in team competition. 

There’s long been this belief that the Americans didn’t take that match seriously enough, but I’ve never bought into that. I think we simply putted better than they did. Sometimes you’re dishing it out; other times you’re on the receiving end. By the close of play Saturday, we’d opened an insurmountable advantage (14.5–5.5). Nick Price secured the winning point in the second singles match, defeating David Duval 2 & 1, which is still the earliest the Cup has been clinched.

The final score was 20.5–11.5, but our side hasn’t won since. I’ve invested a lot of energy in The Presidents Cup as player and vice captain through the years, so to be able to lead the Internationals as captain this time is a huge honor. To do so at Royal Melbourne, where I’ve enjoyed some of my highest of highs, brings a smile to my face almost as wide as that of my friend Shigeki.