Els Searching for Answers
AKRON, Ohio -- The majors over, Ernie Els went to Firestone with another chance to be No. 1 in the world.
He never broke par.
And he has rarely cared so little.
Its a pity this week was this week, Els said after finishing the NEC Invitational at 13 over, his highest score over par in a non-major since the 1995 Tour Championship at blustery Southern Hills.
If it was a week later, he added, maybe I could have played golf.
Els unleashed that easy smile, but it was clear the wounds were still fresh from a season of major heartache. Four times in contention. Three times with a putt on the 18th hole that could have changed everything.
One look at his score last week and it was painfully obvious that he would rather have been anywhere else than a $7 million World Golf Championship. Someone suggested he was at Firestone in body, but not in spirit.
Barely in body, Els replied. I felt pretty bad.
A year ago, Els won four of his first five tournaments and looked unstoppable as the major championship season approached. Then he injured his wrist on a punching bag, lost his momentum and never came close to winning a major.
This time, he feels like the punching bag.
Im three shots away from winning three majors'this close, he said, pinching his thumb and index finger together. This year, the hammer has been on my head. And I had to pick myself up every time.
Phil Mickelson was five shots away from the Grand Slam, but at least he can spend his offseason deciding what to serve his fellow Masters champions for dinner next April.
Tiger Woods always talks about giving himself a chance in the majors.
Think he wouldnt love to have a year like Els?
A lot of people would love to have my year, Els said. Its just the bloody results that hurt.
Els had one arm in the green jacket, making two eagles in the final round on his way to a 67. He was on the practice green as Mickelson stood over an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the Masters. The thunderous cheer that followed is still ringing in Els ear.
He picked himself up in time to get into the final group at the U.S. Open, two shots behind Retief Goosen. A double bogey on the first hole sent him to an 80, his worst score ever in the major he has won twice.
Then came the British Open, where Els made a dynamic rally with birdies on the 16th and 17th at Royal Troon, followed by a 7-iron into 12 feet and a chance to win the claret jug. He had to be careful not to run the putt 6 feet by, left it a few inches short and never made another putt that mattered in a playoff loss to Todd Hamilton.
Still, he mustered up one last fight.
Els hit the purest shot at Whistling Straits, a 2-iron to within tap-in range for birdie on the 518-yard 15th hole'into the wind, no less'and followed with another birdie to give himself a chance. But his drive barely went through the fairway on the 18th, leaving him no shot at the flag. He wound up with a three-putt bogey from 80 feet, which ultimately left him one shot out of the playoff.
I just want to forget about what happened, Els said. I want to start fresh again.
Els has been down this road before.
Three years ago at Southern Hills, where he finished 14 over in the U.S. Open, he spoke softly about losing his fire. Els had finished runner-up in three majors the year before, a mental blow that carried over into the 2001 season. It was the only time in his career that he failed to win on the PGA Tour.
But he regrouped. He found that edge. He won the British Open at Muirfield.
Els was in a fog at Firestone, but he might have been more guilty of looking ahead than looking behind.
He said he would take a week off to play with his family, then start working his body back into shape. He talks about starting the process over, and analyzing why he didnt win a major.
Was it simply a matter of three putts?
Maybe theres more to it than that, Els said. And maybe thats what Ill find out.
They call him the Big Easy. Truth is, fewer guys are harder on themselves than Els. When someone asked if Els might feel better about his season in the majors'four great chances'as times passes, the slightest snarl crossed his lips.
No, he said. I want to feel determined. Ive gone too far to feel this is as far as I can go. I want to feel determined to get back to winning majors. I feel like I need to do it right now.
The only thing he feels good about is his schedule, which he felt enabled him to peak at the majors. Els remains angry at the PGA Tour for making him play an extra event to compensate for the tournaments he plays overseas (dont expect him to return to La Costa any time soon for the Match Play Championship), but he wont waste energy on that battle.
He has to figure out how to get over the hump.
Ill find an answer, he said.
The Masters is 224 days away. For Els, it cant get here soon enough.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might
Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.
“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”
Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”
“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”
Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)
Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”
Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"
As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.
Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”
McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks
The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.
McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.
“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”
At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.”
And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.
“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.
“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”
Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic
No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.
Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.
With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.
“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”
Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.
Ortiz takes Web.com Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas
Former Web.com Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.
Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.
Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Web.com Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Web.com Tour Player of the Year.
McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.