Ernie Els has won three major championships, captured 64 professional victories, including 18 on the PGA Tour, and has been inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but over the last three weeks he’s been fighting to stay alive in the playoffs. Els, who has obviously struggled this season, faced elimination at the last three events, but he’s managed to survive under pressure — which he describes as more intense than being in contention.
On Monday at TPC Boston Els walked to the 18th tee knowing he had to make birdie to finish in the top-70 in FedExCup points and grab a spot in the BMW Championship.
“I was not going to look at a scoreboard all day,” said Els who finished 68th in points. “And then I just glimpsed left, and as I saw it, boom, I saw the board, and I saw 71, Els, 70, Ogilvy. So I knew I had to get it up-and-down (on 17).”
After he successfully posted a 4 and eventually placed T16 with a total of eight-under, he admitted how nerve-wracking his predicament has been. Asked if he’d exhaled yet, he replied, “Barely. I’m going to get on the airplane and have a couple of beers now, so I’ll probably celebrate getting into the top 70. But it’s been a hard couple of days.”
Actually it’s been a grind the last three weeks. Els entered the Wyndham Championship, the final regular season event, outside of the FedExCup bubble at 126th in the points standings. He only needed to T30 to move into the top 125. Then at the first playoff event at the weather-shortened Barclays, Els faced elimination once again. He placed T32 to sneak in the top 100 at 99th in FEC points.
Maybe the added pressure was exactly what Els needed to get back on track.
“After working a lot on my game, I need to feel it under pressure. There’s no better exercise than I have been through the last three weeks to really test your nerves, your game, your putting, your chipping, the driving. So I’ve been really under the gun, and I think it’s been good.”
Els had several clutch par saves coming down the stretch on the 15th and 17th.
“I got myself in trouble,” he said. “I got the ball up-and-down when I needed to. I’m starting to feel more like myself.”
What was it like standing in 18 fairway well aware of his predicament? Els didn’t mince words.
“You’re actually sh***ing yourself,” he said. “I’ve got 186 (yards) to the front, 210 to the hole, and you’re not sure what the wind is doing. It’s coming this way, that way. You need to hit it over the hazard, but you can’t hit it too long. Basically the same stuff that goes through your head when you’ve got a one-shot lead or you’re trying to win a golf tournament. I just went through probably the exact same kind of situation — emotions. It’s good to feel that, and it’s good to get one up on the game for once. The game has really had its own on me this year so far, so it’s nice to get something back.”
Els added more perspective, acknowledging that the pressure he felt on the 72nd hole was more intense than being in contention to win a tournament.
“I think it’s worse,” said Els when asked to compare the two situations. “You screw up on the 18th leading and now you’re going to finish second and you’re going to have a $600,000 check. Here (in the playoffs) I’m going home.”
Meanwhile, Chris Stroud, who started the week No. 75 in FEC points, was the last man to make it to the next leg of the playoffs, finishing at No. 70. Similar to Els, who had to card a birdie, Stroud knew he had to make eagle going into 18.
“I made par on 17, so I told (my caddie) Scotty from the tee, we’ve got to make 3 to get in,” he said after posting a two-over 73. “We hit a great drive. I haven’t had any trouble with that drive all week. But we got up there and the pin was exactly where my ball ended up on the second round. I hit a great little hybrid on there in the second round. I told Scotty, let’s hit the same shot, and I hit the exact same shot, a little cut in there, fed off that hill, and obviously really close to going in.”
Stroud, who admittedly struggled in the final round, started looking at leaderboards after he doubled the 14th.
“About four or five holes left after I had fallen down so far, I was curious how far I had went down because I knew I was fine all day, but after I made that double, I was like, man, we’ve got to be outside the number now, and that’s when I started looking,” he said. “Then I made another bogey on the next hole, and that’s when I was like, three holes left, I’ve got to make birdie-birdie-birdie and maybe have a chance. And then parred 16, parred 17, and then I saw that I was 76 (in points) on 17 green, and I was like, maybe birdie will get me somewhere. We went out there and hit a great drive down there, great little 3-iron, three feet for eagle. It was a great way to finish.”
Johnson Wagner also started the week outside the top 70, but played his way to No. 67. While he had an earlier tee time and lots of room for things to fluctuate, he had an idea of where he stood. He did his best to avoid scoreboards Monday, but he caught one on 15.
“I kind of knew I was right there,” said Wagner. “I birdied 16, figured that was really good, a couple more birdies coming in would solidify it. I hit the shots. I burned all my putts on my six-footers for par earlier today and just couldn’t make those last two (birdies) coming in.”
Wagner had about a 30-foot putt from the first cut for eagle on 18, which he blew way past the hole and then missed the comeback for birdie.
“I’m pretty upset actually, ready to break something,” he said. “I fought hard all day, so it would be a real shame if I didn’t get in that top 70.”
The leaders were still on the front nine when Wagner signed his scorecard, so he was left to play the waiting game.
“I’m going to get out of here and watch it on my phone all afternoon, sweat it out,” said Wagner. “It’s like a Friday cut.”
Unlike Els, Stroud and Wagner, Geoff Ogilvy thought he had already blown his chances to make it to Chicago when he reached the 18th. In fact, he figured he was out of it already on the 17th.
He took an unplayable on 17, but dropped an incredible putt to save par. Asked if he knew that putt was do or die, Ogilvy replied, “The truth? I thought it was over at that point. I thought I was gone, to be honest with you. But I was trying to hole it.”
Maybe not knowing helped Ogilvy, but who knows, he wasn’t mailing it in, either.
“Golf is weird like that,” he said after shooting two-over 73 to place T25. “I wasn’t not trying, but I wasn’t really concerned with it at that point. I was just trying to make the putt, really. Most of the day I thought I would have needed to be 7 or 8(-under), so when you’re five (under), taking an unplayable 150 yards from the green, I thought I was pretty done here. It worked out. I get rewarded with a trip to Cog Hill.”
Ogilvy, who finished No. 69 in FEC points, said he hit the best shot all week into the 18th green. He easily made birdie and unknowingly secured a spot in the BMW Championship.
Brandt Jobe began the week at No. 56, so unlike the others, it was his to lose, but he couldn’t find his game all week. Well, until the last four holes. During his round, he caught a scoreboard and saw he was 77th in points.
“I said I don’t want to finish 77th this week and then I started thinking, I wonder where the point are,” said Jobe, who ended up No. 63 in points. “I said, forget it, let’s try and make a couple birdies coming in. Fortunately, I birdied the last four so that was good.”
Jobe was last seen “gazing into the computer in the locker room, seemingly mesmerized by the FedEx machinations,” according to colleague Cam Morfit.
Personally, I think the most intriguing stories are the guys who are on the bubble and pull off something like Jobe or Els to make it to the next leg. Even if the so-called playoffs often feel contrived and garish, no one wants to be sent home packing.
For some, it means more than it does to others who have already locked up their cards.
Take runner-up Chez Reavie, for example — he started the year playing on a major medical exemption and not knowing if he’d still have his card. In his presser, he fought back tears because he was so thrilled despite losing in a playoff that he probably should have avoided altogether. He moved up from No. 87 to No. 9 to secure his card for 2012 and a place in the Tour Championship and all four majors.