Ernie Els hasn’t had the best season of his career — not by a long shot, but he feels like his game is finally taking a turn for the better. He’s been enduring some growing pains following a couple of changes. There’s been the equipment switch from Callaway to Adams. He’s back to using the short putter after a couple-year dalliance with the belly putter. He’s also been enduring a nagging injury to his back and ribs due to the wear of tear of too much practicing and playing.
However, Els was all smiles following his three-under 68 on Friday at Ridgewood Country Club in the second round of The Barclays, putting him in contention at six-under at the halfway mark. With the afternoon wave still on the golf course, he trails a large group of players by just one.
“This specimen, yeah, it can also get damaged,” said Els, laughing, referring to his body. “It’s the middle of the back here and it shoots into the ribs. I’ve had it before, so I think I can manage it.”
Els finished tied for 7th two weeks ago at the PGA Championship, his best since placing fourth at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship back in February. Between then and now, he’s missed six cuts and posted a couple of decent finishes, but hasn’t done anything too prominent until the PGA.
“I went through a tough time again,” he said, referring to the slump he endured several years ago. “I haven’t had a great year. It’s mainly because of confidence on the greens and so forth. I feel like we’ve turned a big corner here…
“Everything is kind of getting in place now.”
He credits his turn in form to finally feeling comfortable with his new equipment, along with his hard work on his short game, particularly with the flat stick.
“I’ve done a lot of work, just going on from the belly and just going on the short putter this week and really finding my feet on the greens now,” he said. “I’m starting to feel like the old Ernie again on the greens. So it’s exciting.”
He’s also feeling revitalized mentally and physically.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of energy now,” said Els after taking it easy last week at the Wyndham Championship, where he finished T64.
But he’s not just referring to this week at the first FedExCup Playoff event — he means in general, too. He’s watching putts fall again and that’s made all the difference.
“Going to the short putter, there was a huge margin there to improve and I feel I’ve really closed a big gap there that I’ve been lacking in my game, and it’s been my short game,” said the three-time major champion. “That’s great, when you’re starting to make putts, you’ll even see me smile maybe now. It’s hard to smile when you keep missing putts, believe me, as a golfer.
And at age 44, Els, who captured the 2012 Open Championship, still thinks he has a major victory left in him.
“The whole energy feels different now,” he said. “So I feel I can still pull out a major I think in the next couple of years, so keep grinding.”
You can tell when Ernie is in good spirits and when he’s not — mostly because he’s not afraid to show and express his emotions. Let’s just say when things aren’t going well, you know when to keep your distance because he can get a little hot under the collar, but not per se in a negative way. In fact, it’s actually quite endearing when you realize not to take it personally (it’s kind of a rite of passage to get yelled at by him at least once in your career as a journalist/reporter).
That said, it’s easy to tell that Els feels encouraged and enthusiastic these days. Take yesterday evening for example. Ernie was packing up his courtesy car in the parking lot with his manager and caddie. His manager happened to loop for him last week at the Wyndham and I walked up to greet him and jab at him a little at his change in duties.
“You made it, you’re alive!” I said to his manager. “How did it go?”
He replied, “Well, I’m still standing and Ernie is still talking to me…”
Ernie had a big grin on his face, so I turned to him and joked, “So, did Andy give you any bad numbers?”
Ernie’s smile grew even bigger and paused for a moment before saying, “I thank God every day that I didn’t have to give (Andy) mouth-to-mouth.”
We all had a good laugh.
Els added, “Next time I’ll get him a pull cart.”