WORLD BEATERS

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

Golf Australia - - CONTENTS - WORDS MICHAEL JONES & JIMMY EMANUEL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GETTY IM­AGES

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 CON­TENDERS

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.

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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.

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