More Than Just Winning for Els

By John HawkinsMarch 17, 2010, 1:29 am
It was the most significant round of golf played on the PGA Tour this year – a bogey-free 66 on a breezy Sunday afternoon at a premium-field event, which turned a tight ballgame into a runaway victory. More a test of inner-strength than a work of art, what made the performance so meaningful is that Ernie Els strode to Doral’s first tee with a share of the 54-hole lead and a lot more on the line than anyone behind him.
Ernie and Ben Els
Ernie Els and son Ben at Monday's autism charity event. (Getty Images)
More to gain, more to lose, definitely more to prove. Although Els’ career had been in steady decline since the fall of 2004, few people would dare to trace his freefall to the condition of his son, Ben, who was diagnosed with autism in 2007. Granted, Els underwent major knee surgery in the summer of  ’05, then made a hasty return to competitive golf that December, so more than a year passed between his comeback and an announcement regarding his son’s impairment.

Along the way, there were a couple of different management agencies, a change in equipment companies and several caddies, all while Els tried desperately to regain the form that made him one of the world’s top players for a decade. For a considerable portion of 2006, the Big Easy was actually taking advice from two sports psychologists. “I was almost chasing my own tail a little bit,” he acknowledged last Sunday. “I went about it the wrong way, wasn’t looking after the little things.”

His off-course business portfolio got thicker, but it wasn’t until Els was beaten by Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Masters, then lost a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open three months later, that the comparisons became inevitable. The guy was turning into Greg Norman, consumed by competitive heartbreak, then chasing away the pain with a 10-gallon jug of distractions. Ben’s diagnosis shattered that broken heart into a million pieces, but both Ernie and his wife, Liezl, have recently said that their son’s autism has redefined their purpose in life.

The Els for Autism Foundation eventually will serve as 30,000 square feet of proof, the long-term plan calling for a south Florida facility capable of accommodating 300 children, but until last Sunday, there wasn’t substantial evidence that Els would ever be successful when it came to rebuilding his career. Having grown up with a severely retarded brother, I experienced the difficulties and emotional burden that can shape the existence of an entire family.

Sorrow. Guilt. Anger. I still tell anybody who will listen that my brother’s handicap impacted my own childhood as much as losing my father at the age of 9. The world seems much more understanding now, or maybe I’ve just grown up a little bit, but I cannot imagine a similar misfortune not affecting a world-class golfer, a three-time major champion already plagued by a certain amount of scar tissue accrued inside the ropes.

If you were born with more than an ounce of compassion, it changes you. Does that mean it alters the numbers on your scorecard? Only Els can really answer that, and though we haven’t spoken often in recent years, I got to know him well enough to say he’s far too kind and way too proud to blame the last five years of his golf life on the mental and domestic implications of his son’s condition. After winning last Sunday night, he admitted, “I didn’t think it was ever going to happen again.” They are words spoken by a man who has been forced to see the bigger picture, and at some point, came to terms with the hand fate has dealt him.

It is definitely not something Els would have said in 2004. There is a tendency among many of us to size up this type of victory by wondering whether it will improve the player’s chances of winning an upcoming major. The Masters is a tournament Els has loved forever and lost more than once, a title one might have suspected he’d win two or three times before all was said and done. His play at Augusta National in recent years has been awful, his three consecutive missed cuts reflective of a man trying too hard and knocking himself out of the hunt before the hunt had even started.

The Els I saw down the stretch Sunday afternoon looked more composed than the guy I saw in the prime of his career, when the Big Easy used to huff and puff his way through the pressure and visibly sigh after crucial moments. He looked emotionally unencumbered at Doral, and if he really thought he might not ever win again, he has no reason to feel that way now. With Tiger Woods either on the shelf or just coming off it, with Mickelson struggling to get all parts of his game working at the same time, Els has suddenly become both a thinking man’s favorite and a feelgood favorite, too.

“When I won [the Honda Classic] two years ago, I got all carried away with it and thought I was going to win at Augusta,” Els said last Sunday evening. “This time, I just want to take it all in.” Which isn’t to say he can’t get something out of it, too.
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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.