Els' love affair with Masters not over yet

By Randall MellApril 6, 2013, 2:00 pm

Ernie Els is tired of feeling like a jilted lover leaving the Masters.

He reveres Augusta National, relishes the championship and its traditions, but it has been unrequited love in the way that matters most to those chasing major titles.

This love story’s ending, though, isn’t written just yet.

After missing the Masters last year for the first time in nearly two decades, Els makes a highly anticipated return next week.

At 43, he returns with last summer’s British Open victory a reminder he shouldn’t be discounted even in a major that has wounded him more than any other.


Who's in: Masters field

Vote for your favorite Masters tradition


Els returns for his 19th appearance in the Masters with a fresh perspective, thanks to a year away that might have been a blessing in disguise.

“I probably needed a year off, to be honest, because it was getting quite frustrating,” Els told GolfChannel.com. “Since '04, I just never really had the right mojo going in there. Even winning at Bay Hill in 2010, and winning in Miami just before that, and going in with a lot of form, something still was kind of missing.

“Not playing last year, and watching it on TV, especially with Louis Oosthuizen being in contention, seeing the guys playing the course, where they were hitting it, the pin placements and all of that, it almost brought me back to memories as a fan. I think it was a good thing I missed it, in how it has given me a kind of new, fresh start.”

Els is going to the Masters in search of his fifth major championship title with a different game plan this time. Mostly, he is going with a different attitude. He’s tired of trying too hard to get Augusta National’s cosmic gate keeper to allow him entry to the champions locker room.

“I’m definitely going to play the course and forget about even winning,” Els said. “I’m just going to go there without any pressure. I’m going to do things a little differently.

“I’ve played it so many times, you can’t trick me with that place anymore, but I definitely have a very different outlook than I used to have. I used to put so much pressure on myself, thinking `Maybe this is the year.’ I don’t want to deal with all that pressure. If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t I’ve had a great run.”

Ernie Els celebrates winning the 1997 U.S. Open

Els through the years: Click on picture for photo gallery

Els is planning to stop and smell the azaleas this time around. He hasn’t played the Masters Par 3 Contest in six or so years, but he plans to this year. His 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, has never caddied in the contest. She’ll get that chance next week.

While there may be unrequited love in Els’ quest to win, it isn’t that way with the people at Augusta National. Els has formed some strong bonds with members and staff there. He would be an enormously popular champion in the clubhouse and locker room if he breaks through.

Els was welcomed back warmly when he went to play a practice round there with Adam Scott three weeks ago.

“I saw the pro, the staff, the guys in the locker room, guys who have been there years and years,” Els said. “I think they missed me. We’ve become good friends.”

So much so that when Els was gutted watching Phil Mickelson take the green jacket with a birdie at the 72nd hole in 2004, he saw the disappointment in Augusta National staff as he packed up his gear in the locker room.

“They were probably as sad as I was, maybe not quite,” Els said.

Els made such formidable runs at the Masters between 2000 and ’04. He appeared to have one arm in the green jacket more than once. Twice he was runner-up while never finishing worse than T-6 in that span.

With his power, his towering iron shots, his terrific touch for a big man, Els seemed perfectly suited for Augusta National.

“If there was any major he was going to win, it was that one,” said Ricci Roberts, who caddied for Els in those runs. “He won two U.S. Opens, and that’s the major you least expected him to win.”

The ’04 loss to Mickelson, though, appeared to take something out of Els.

Roberts was with his player on the practice putting green when Mickelson’s final birdie that Sunday sealed their fate.

“When you heard the roar, it was like somebody reached into your chest and pulled your heart out,” Roberts said. “Ernie didn’t throw it away. He just got beat.”

In fact, Els played the final 12 holes in 6 under that day.

Since that ’04 loss, Els hasn’t been the same at Augusta National. He finished 47th in the ’05 Masters. He missed consecutive cuts in ’07, ’08 and ’09.

Finally, in 2010, he arrived as a favorite having won at Doral and Bay Hill leading into the Masters. That only set up another letdown. Els was never a factor at Augusta National and tied for 18th. The cumulative weight of the disappointments was evident when he shared his frustration with reporters there that year.

“It’s killing me,” Els said back then. “What can you do? I’m just beating my head against the wall every time.”

The words were disconcerting for folks rooting for Els to win there. There was such resignation in them, but that’s why Els’ failure to qualify for the Masters last year may have been the best thing for him. The year away gave him time to see how trying too hard, how loving that place too much, was hurting him.

There remains, however, some fatalistic perspective in his return, his wonder whether outcomes have never been completely in his hands and whether some cosmic force decides all these things.

“I think ’04 was maybe my time, and it didn’t quite happen,” Els said. “Augusta is that kind of place, where the dream and the story, it’s all almost written for some players. Maybe mine was there, and I didn’t quite take the opportunity. Who knows? If I never win the Masters, it will be disappointing. I’m obviously on the wrong end of it now. It’s a course and a place that has given me a lot of hope of winning it, but it is definitely bittersweet memories.”

Getty Images

After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.


On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner


On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray


On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard


On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

Getty Images

Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 2:20 am

LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.

“I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”

By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.

Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.

“I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.

Getty Images

Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

Getty Images

Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”