Ernie is Back After Fall From the Top
At 24, he had won the U.S. Open once. At 27, he had won it again. By the year 2000, at the age of 30, he had won 33 times around the globe. This had been one of the most successful players on the face of the earth ' and he was just hitting the prime golfing age.
Then, last year it all vanished. He forgot how to win. He was searching but not finding. Ernie Els was a name mentioned somewhere in the second tier of favorites when you were deciding who might win the next major. The smooth, supple swing was still there, but the scoring average wasnt. Ernie had been reduced to the category of others in the field, a man who had the talent to jump up and bite you, but most likely wouldnt.
Last week, he took a giant step toward rectifying all that. He played three brilliant rounds to take a huge lead at Doral, then hung on Sunday while Tiger Woods threatened to blow right by him and wipe out his once-imposing advantage. Ernie had done it, holding fast while the gales threatened to blow him right off his feet. Now they are all talking about him again.
It had actually ended in 1998. That was the year of Els big pratfall. He had an eight-shot lead over Woods at the Johnnie Walker beginning the last round ' and lost to him in a playoff. That one loss sent Els spiraling down from his perch atop golfs best. He would win every now and then from that moment to last year, but he became a top-10 golfer instead of the Top One.
In 1998, of course, Els was still in his 20s. In 2002, hes in his early 30s. He undoubtedly has lost some off the distance. But he must have gained something in the noggin ' which can be a reasonable trade-off.
Els did something at Doral Sunday that he didnt do in Thailand in 1998. I stayed committed, he said, meaning he approached every shot as if he were certain he was making the right stroke. He wasnt really certain that day in 98.
Ernie is brutally honest. He cant lie to himself to make him be someone else. Other players have that knack to kid themselves into thinking they can beat anyone ' at least for a moment. This guy isnt like that, although he knows that he can beat any one at any time. He knows, however, that he can be beaten, and that knowledge had defeated him at times.
So, Els isnt going to say the win made him a tougher player, or better, or anything like that. He frankly doesnt know, although he hopes so.
You know, I would like to think so, he told the writers gathered at the Genuity Championship. But you know, next time I might play better. There are always learning experiences you go through in life, and especially on the golf course. So this is preparation for the next time. At least I can fall back on this one, and it could only get better.
Frank Nobilo knows Els very well. They are neighbors most of the year at Lake Nona in Orlando. The two played in Europe together, in Australia and New Zealand together, even some in South Africa together. Nobilo knows, as a friend knows, what a loss in the Genuity would have meant to his buddy. He especially knew what it would have meant if Els had lost to Tiger. Ernie is human, and human beings get hurt by the words that would have been written about the duel.
If (the players) are honest, theyd admit that, Nobilo said. You might not read it yourself, but you hear about it from family and friends. You try shutting it out, but you are human.
Sometimes you have to quiet the critics. You dont know what might happen when you get the monkey off your shoulder. Success is habit forming. Now Tiger knows hes not going to intimidate Ernie, but Ernie also knows he has to play well to beat Tiger.
And so Els leaves for a week in Dubai before returning to Florida to play Bay Hill. He still was a little rushed, but there was plenty of time to reflect on it all when things quieted down a little.
You know, if I look back when I get on the plane tonight and I am flying and after a couple of beers when I have relaxed a little, I will think back on this and maybe look at it as a blessing in disguise maybe for the future, Els was saying.
I have had some tough, very tough breaks in the last year, not winning tournaments, and this definitely would have been a very difficult one to swallow.
But you know, I felt like I committed myself better this time around. And its hard to say, but I felt that I hung in the last 45 holes pretty well.
And with that, it was time for the Dubai Express to leave. Hes there now, but not before time for joking or maybe it wasnt a joke. Somebody wondered if his appearance fee had just gone up.
Ernie had to chuckle. Yeah ' why do you think I am going?
Expect those appearance fees to stay higher for a few more years.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.
Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.
The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.
McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.
McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.