The last two years on the golf course haven’t been a walk in the park for Ernie Els, a three-time major champion. For a few hours on Sunday afternoon at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, Els had a chance to break his two-year win-less streak on the PGA Tour, but he stumbled coming down the stretch, missing short putts and bogeying two of the last three holes at the Transitions Championship.
You could nearly see the smoke coming out of Ernie’s ears as we cautiously walked behind him from the 18th green to the scoring area. He was visibly (and understandably) heated, while fans and volunteers emanated an air of disappointment and sympathy. (I glanced over at a colleague immediately after Ernie missed his par-putt on 18 and he looked like someone had just run over his dog.) Not only had he blown his shot at getting in the eventual four-way playoff, he also still hasn’t earned the coveted Masters invitation (he’s played in every one since 1994).
Els played flawlessly for 12 holes, birdieing half of them. After rolling in a seven-footer on No. 12, he got to 14-under and took the outright lead, with a leaderboard filled with world-beaters closely chasing him.
The 43-year-old South African failed to convert birdies on both reachable-in-two par-5s on the back nine, which definitely hurt him, especially when he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity on No. 14. His second shot was just short of the green — easy chip and a putt to post a birdie, right? Not exactly. He hit his chip heavy, leaving him with 18-feet to the hole. He missed and settled for par. That arguably killed his momentum, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
With three holes left to play — which are dubbed the “Snake Pit” because they’re difficult — Els appeared like he was going to cruise through without a problem. On the intimidating 16th, where water guards the right side of the fairway, he piped his drive 308 yards down the middle. (This is also when I showed up and hit him with the Wei jinx. My sincere regrets.) He followed it with an equally impressive approach, knocking it to about five-feet.
That putt for birdie was to get to 14-under and to take a two-shot lead going into 17. Luke Donald was in the group ahead of him. Robert Garrigus had finished about an hour earlier. Ken Duke was in the twosome right behind him. Sang-Moon Bae was in the next one and Jim Furyk was in the final pairing.
Instead of giving himself a little cushion, Els pulled the putt and had to settle with a par.
“Back in the day, I would have made that putt and won the tournament by two or three shots,” Els told a small group of reporters in the parking lot. “Now it’s a different story.”
Els has been struggling with the putter for most of the last two years. In fact, it’s well known that it’s been the root of his problems. Just ask Donald, who birdied the first extra hole in the four-man playoff to win the event and reclaim the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.
“I think Ernie’s obviously struggled on the greens more than anything,” said Donald, who shot a final-round five-under 66, when asked his thoughts on Els in his post-victory presser. “Ernie was playing behind me today, and he was bombing shots — I was looking back and he was 50 yards past where I was. He’s obviously felt like he was swinging well this week…But yes, it’s unfortunate to miss a short putt like that (on 18). You know, putting is very mental. Hopefully he can figure it out.”
Els hopes so, too.
Meanwhile, despite the short miss, he didn’t seem too angry, definitely disappointed, but not fuming (trust me, you can tell the difference). I even caught a smile as he was walking to the par-3 17th, where the group in front was just teeing off. But the 10-15 minute wait at the tee box killed any shot of Els regaining his momentum and recuperating from the short miss. Instead, he sat on the back of the tee and mulled over it. I was about 10 yards away, but I could hear bits of his conversation with his caddie Dan Quinn, who was trying to tell Els to shake it off.
“There was a little spike mark, but I didn’t really have the right line,” said Els afterward. “Even if I hit it on that line, I probably still would have missed it left…Obviously on 17 there was a bit of a wait. That putt on 16 was still in my head when I missed that shot.”
Els was referring to the 4-iron he fanned into the gallery to the right of the green. While he had a decent lie, he had left himself short-sided and a bunker in between him and the pin. He pitched it to about 18 feet, the best he could do, and nearly drained the putt to save par. The bogey dropped him back to 13-under and a six-way tie for the lead.
Then he strolled to the 18th tee, waited some more before he hit a nice hybrid in the middle of the fairway. Unfortunately, he was in between clubs and pulled his 7-iron just off the green. He hit a pretty good chip to about four feet to save par, then he missed.
Another bogey. Another lost opportunity.
“I was actually pretty pleased with the chip shot,” he said. “I didn’t really have a great lie. When you miss a put on No. 16 like that, the gas is coming out of the tank a little bit.”
Els was implying the botched putts on Nos. 16 and 18 were connected and the one on the 72nd hole was a result of his tentativeness after what happened two holes before.
“When you’re in the hot seat, people are going to criticize you,” he said. “When you hit a good putt and it misses, you’re still going to get criticized. So that’s the position I’m in. If I feel like I hit a good putt and it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t matter what I say…I feel like I’m in a difficult position and I’ve got to defend myself all the time about the putting.
“It kind of came to a boiling point there almost. It was a bit of an odd question.”
Els, of course, was referring to being asked whether he felt he had the confidence to make the putt on 18 by a television interviewer on the NBC telecast. That didn’t go over so well, if you couldn’t tell by his reaction. It was an awkward situation, though. Els had just signed his scorecard and understandably fuming after his bogey-bogey finish that squandered his spot in the playoff with Donald, Bae, Furyk and Garrigus.
While waiting for the TV and radio interviews, Els barked at a PGA Tour official and then exerted every bit of self-restraint to not lose his cool at the question-askers. He made his way down the line of fans waiting for autographs and signed for about five minutes. A few reporters, myself included, watched cautiously, pondering whether or not to
risk approach him. Luckily, he had cooled down by the time the four of us caught up with him and answered our questions pleasantly and introspectively.
“I shot 68 yesterday, and still felt like I left four or five out there,” he said. “Whoever watched me play today, it was the same thing. Whenever it turns, it will be beautiful, but in the moment, I’m not in a good place…
“It’s going to be tough to get over this, but I just gotta keep grinding.”
Els, who was ranked No. 68 heading into this week, needs to crack the top 50 for an invitation to the Masters. Finishing tied for fifth here will certainly help, but it won’t be enough — OWGR experts estimate he’ll move up to about No. 62 when the new rankings are released on Monday. That means he’ll need to win at Bay Hill, unless Augusta National decides to grant him a special invite (c’mon, green coats, just do it!), like the one Ryo Ishikawa received a few weeks ago.
“I was just trying to win a golf tournament,” said Els when I asked how much he was thinking about the Masters. “Obviously, I can’t lie to you, I’ve been thinking about it constantly. But I just want to get the job done and win golf tournaments.”
Before he shows up to Bay Hill, he’ll first play in the
ostentatious gaudy exhibition Tavistock Cup at Lake Nona on Monday and Tuesday. He said he wasn’t thrilled to be playing right away coming off such a massive letdown.
“I’d rather be sitting here drowning my sorrows, but maybe that’s also a good thing not to do that,” said Els, with a smile.
There aren’t places to drink in Orlando? Kidding. Seriously though, I’ll bet he’s already polished off at least a six-pack of Heinekens by now. Don’t blame him.
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)