The ISPS HANDA World Cup of Golf returns to Melbourne this month where 28 countries will be represented by two-man teams at Metropolitan Golf Club. Can the highly-fancied partnership of Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith claim Australia’s sixth World Cup of
The ISPS HANDA World Cup of Golf arrives at Metropolitan Golf Club this month. Can the highly-fancied partnership of Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith claim Australia’s sixth title?
Australia has a proud history in the World Cup of Golf – which began in 1953 as the Canada Cup and was won the very next year by the combination of Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle.
Thomson and Nagle teamed up again to lift the Cup at Royal Melbourne in 1959 before Bruce Devlin and David Graham combined to win the 1970 edition in Argentina.
Nineteen years passed before Peter Fowler and Wayne Grady defeated a Spanish team including José María Olazábal on their home soil. And, most recently, in 2013, Australia’s two latest major champions – Adam Scott and Jason Day – paired up to claim the nation’s second World Cup to be won at home.
This year’s instalment will see Victorian Marc Leishman – one of the highest-ranked players in the field – partner Queenslander Cameron Smith as they attempt to join the illustrious list of Australian winners, with every combination including at least one major winner either before or after their World Cup victory.
As one of only three teams with both players ranked inside the world’s top-50, Leishman (World No.24) and Smith (No.32) will begin the tournament as favourites at a venue they’re both familiar with and have experience playing the unique style of golf required on the Sandbelt.
“It’s an unbelievable golf course, one of the best conditioned golf courses, if not the best conditioned course I’ve ever seen,” Leishman told a teleconference in September.
Leishman, who played alongside Scott in the 2016 World Cup at nearby Kingston Heath, earnt the right to pick his partner when Australia’s top-ranked player Day waved his place in the field due to the birth of his third child, which was expected to arrive during the days of the event.
Leishman agonised over whether he should repay the favour to good friend Scott, or reward the higher-ranked Smith – whose game he rates highly – for his superior season.
“It was a really hard phone call to Scotty; he’s a close mate and any time you have to tell a mate you’re not picking him is di¦cult, but Cam has been playing too well not to pick him,” Leishman told AAP.
“I’m really excited to take Cam; he’s going to bring a lot of enthusiasm because it’s his debut for an Australian team as a professional golfer. Cam loves team sports and I know he’ll step up once we’re playing for Australia.”
Beyond being the next highest-ranked Australian player, Smith has a professional team victory to his name, capturing the Zurich Classic alongside Jonas Blixt on the PGA Tour in 2017. The reigning Australian PGA Champion’s lone PGA Tour win shared the same 72-hole strokeplay format as the World Cup, evenly split between two rounds of Four-ball and two rounds of Foursomes play.
Another factor improving Australia’s chances at Metropolitan (although somewhat disappointing) are the notable absentees missing from the field – including the 14 highest-ranked players from the United States. Weddings and the big-money match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have conspired against event organisers. But that hasn’t diminished Leishman’s enthusiasm towards the tournament.
“I mean, me personally, I’m not going to let that put a damper on the tournament or hopefully any success that we have there,” Leishman said. “It’s still going to be a great field on an unbelievably good golf course.”
The Australian team certainly deserves to be seen as one of the heavy favourites, especially on home soil. But nobody should be ruled out – and the likes of Denmark, England and South Africa should provide sti competition.
Thorbjørn Olesen and Søren Kjeldsen return to defend the Cup for Team Denmark and should once again prove hard to hold out. The pair combined to reach 20-under-par at Kingston Heath in 2016 – winning by four strokes – and nearly shot golf’s magic number on day two when they posted 12-under 60.
Although Kjeldsen has seen his world ranking slip from World No.45 in 2016 to outside the top-200, his short game remains amongst the best in the world and will suit the challenging green complexes found at Metropolitan.
Olesen, meanwhile, recently made his maiden appearance at the Ryder Cup and is in career-best form, finding himself right in the running to win the European Tour’s Race to Dubai (he was ranked sixth at the time of going to print).
Team England is another side that deserves
plenty of attention, especially since Tyrrell Hatton selected the in-form Ian Poulter as his partner.
The 27-year-old Hatton has enjoyed another successful season in Europe, posting nine top-20s from his 14 starts and making his Ryder Cup debut in Paris. While Poulter, of course, was once again pivotal at the biennial teams event and will arrive in Melbourne with plenty of confidence.
South Africa has assembled one of the strongest sides for the World Cup and will be represented by Branden Grace and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
Grace, 30, has been consistent throughout 2018 and has only missed two cuts from 25 starts across the PGA and European Tours. Although the same can’t quite be said for Schwartzel, who has missed seven cuts from 24 events, the 34-year-old finished second at The Players in May and still possesses one of the best swings in world golf.
THE DARK HORSES
With the highest ranked available player from the top 28 countries in world golf, there are very few teams that, while perhaps not among the favourites to take home the World Cup, could be considered rank outsiders.
Of the less heralded teams teeing it up at Metropolitan, China, France and Thailand – all with European Tour winners in their sides – will seriously fancy their chances of causing an upset. Plus, all three nations will be spurred on by the chance to capture their respective country’s first ever World Cup victory.
The Chinese team of Haotong Li and Ashun Wu, who finished runner-up (China’s best ever finish) with France and the USA at Kingston Heath in 2016, will reunite in Melbourne – and both Li and Wu have already claimed victories in 2018.
The pair became crowd favourites due to their boisterous celebrations in 2016. And with both finding form as the European Tour season winds down, expect much of the same this year.
Another of the combinations sure to be popular with the Melbourne crowds is team Thailand. World No. 37 (at the time of going to press) Kiradech Aphibarnrat and his best friend Prom Meesawat are both capable of high quality golf and are experienced in Australia;
Aphibarnrat the winner of the World Super 6 Perth in early 2018, where Meesawat was the 54-hole stroke play winner.
Not only do the Thais have 20 years of friendship to fall back on, ‘The Barnrat’ and ‘The Big Dolphin’ own playing styles that should combine well in the Four-ball ( best ball) and Foursomes play.
“Our games are very matching and suit each other. I’m very aggressive and Prom is conservative and plays it shot by shot. He’s got the best game plan on Tour,” Aphibarnrat said.
Having both missed out on a Ryder Cup berth in front of their home fans, Mike Lorenzo-Vera and Alexander Levy will relish their chance to represent France in team competition.
Although hot and cold at times, both possess impressive ball-striking abilities that will suit both the layout and format – and Lorenzo-Vera nearly claimed a maiden European Tour win in Switzerland recently, while Levy is a five-time European Tour winner.
Defending champions Denmark have an unchanged team from their triumph in 2016.
Jason Day declining his place in the field paved the way for Leishman to pick Smith.
English combination Tyrrell Hatton and Ian Poulter were both part of Europe’s recent Ryder Cup success in France.
Adam Scott chose Leishman as his partner in 2016. The Victorian thought long and hard about repaying the favour.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat will team up with lifelong friend Prom Meesawat.