Ernie Els bounced back from a bogey late in the third round, birdieing two of the remaining three holes at Bay Hill, to fire a five-under 67 for a share of low round of the day honors. He also had the confidence to roll in a five-footer to save par on No. 17 and a 14-footer for birdie on No. 18 — two crucial putts to stay in contention going in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and to keep his Masters hopes alive.
“That was the number I needed to shoot,” Els said in his post-round TV interview at Innisbrook last Sunday. “I needed to get something in the 60s, I’ve been threatening to do that the first two rounds, and kind of shot myself in the foot somewhere in the round. Today I kept my foot on the accelerator so to speak. I did bogey 15, but birdieing 18 and making the par-saving putt on 17 is quite sweet.”
He’s tied for third and trails leader Tiger Woods by just three shots, the same deficit he needed to make up a week ago at the Transitions Championship, where he blew his chance to take care of earning that elusive trip to Augusta. It was painful to see him miss two putts inside six feet, including one for birdie on No. 16 to take a two-stroke lead, and finish with two consecutive bogeys. he looked equal parts frustrated, pissed and shocked, which was evident in his TV interview just minutes after walking off the 18th green.
About 10 minutes later, he had already cooled down (but admitted to nearly losing it earlier) and talked introspectively about the disappointment, particularly with the Masters on his mind, knowing Bay Hill was his last chance to break the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings and/or win (this week or the following at the Shell Houston Open) — the only avenues left for him to make the field on merit. His tie for 5th bumped him six spots up the world rankings to No. 62. The OWGR number-crunchers estimate Els needs a solo third or tie for second for a probable chance at collecting enough ranking points to bump him inside the magic number.
Els said he could only blame himself for playing poorly and not locking up an invitation to the season’s first major sooner. Of course, there’s still an off chance Augusta National Golf Club will grant him a special invite — as they did Ryo Ishikawa — at the eleventh hour, which would be well-supported by just about everyone from fellow players to the general public. Els, who has played in every Masters since 1994, is practically a fixture. It’s odd to think he might not to qualify for the first time in 18 years.
“Well, I’ve been through the mill, believe me,” said Els when asked how much golf tests a person’s patience. “Almost two years now, I’ve really been tested with the game. I guess when you get to my age, I had a pretty smooth career. The last 18 months has been really difficult. I have to really dig deep just to stay in the game, and now I’m really feeling like I’m coming around again. I feel like I’m hitting it nicely and starting to see some putts fall. So I’ve got some hope again.”
As much as it’s impossible for it not to be on his mind, Els is focused on the task at hand. He would be equally frustrated if he showed up at Augusta and played poorly.
His game, however, has finally taken a turn in the right direction.
“I’ve got to really take care of this tournament, trying to win this golf tournament, and as I said, I feel my game is there. Whether I play in Augusta or not, you know, I’m pretty happy where I am now…If I’m in, I’m in and if I’m not, I’m just glad my game is coming around,” he said. “Whatever happens, I feel like I can have a good year now. I feel like the hard work is starting to pay off.”
Els didn’t feel great about his ballstriking after posting one-under 70 on Friday. He watched a replay of the telecast afterward and noticed he was aiming way right and swinging on an inside path. (Sounds familiar or something I can relate to! — good news is it’s an easy fix.)
“This morning, I hit golf balls even at Lake Nona and got my alignment figured out and I felt great,” he said. “So I can even get it better for tomorrow, so I’ll work on that and get it even more tuned in for tomorrow.”
Watching those putts fall in the finishing holes on Saturday couldn’t have hurt, either, to boost his confidence, along with some extra momentum heading into Sunday at Bay Hill, where he last won on the PGA Tour two years ago.
“This is what I needed,” said Els. “I need to get back on that horse as quickly as possible. I’m back on it…I’m looking forward to tomorrow and come what may, I’m going to try hard.”
After his collapse at Innisbrook, along with his struggles over the past 18 months, it sure would be sweet redemption to see the Big Easy in the winner’s circle on Sunday evening. It’d also be a great story.
(AP Photo/John Raoux)