AVONDALE, La. – Though they share a nickname, New Orleans and Ernie Els do not see a whole lot of one another.
Els is in the Crescent City for the first time in a decade, having last played in the Zurich Classic in 2002.
That week, Els slammed his trunk after shooting 75-73 at English Turn to miss the cut. It was his only missed cut of the season. Els was playing so well, he moved up to third in the Official World Golf Ranking that week. Later in the year, he won the British Open in a playoff at Muirfield.
That was then. This is now.
Els is without a win on the PGA Tour since consecutive wins at Doral and Bay Hill in 2010. He has fallen to No. 63 in the world – the fourth-highest ranked South African – and missed the Masters for the first time in 19 years.
Maybe this is the right time for New Orleans and Els to reacquaint themselves.
Els shot 6-under 66 on Thursday in his first competitive round at TPC Louisiana. He trails Ken Duke and Cameron Tringale by a shot.
'It was a tough day. You had to be on your game,' Els said. 'Felt like I played solidly. So, good start.'
Making the turn in 31 with five birdies, Els was poised to take the lead. He went sideways on the back nine, however, making a birdie at No. 12 and giving it back with a bogey at No. 17. A closing birdie secured Els' position a shot off the lead pair.
Els has experienced a minor renaissance this year, posting top-5 finishes at Tampa and Bay Hill. He came agonizingly close to landing a spot in the playoff at the Transitions Championship, but tugged a short putt on the last hole to miss by a shot.
It's that putter – now anchored in his stomach – that has been the difference to the detriment of Els. A decade ago, Els ranked a respectable 35th in putting average. In 2012, he is 100 spots worse.
The opening round was a good sign, however, as Els putted these tricky Pete Dye greens well. He took just 27 putts while hitting 15 greens, ranking sixth in strokes gained putting.
The Big Easy was encouraged by a 10-foot par save on the 15th as well as one of similar length for a punctuating birdie to close the day.
'Those are the kinds of things I haven't been doing and it's nice to make those and to make that putt on 18 even was a good feeling,' he said.
Els could have even led outright were it not for a couple of near misses on the back nine. Choosing to focus on all of the positives from the afternoon, Els was pleased to beat his target of 70 for the day.
Three more rounds in the 60s would leave Els in position for a bigger target of landing his 19th PGA Tour victory – and securing an invitation to next year's Masters. Before he can be a winner on the PGA Tour again, however, Els will have to conquer his putting woes and mental setbacks for 54 more holes.
'Scoring is good but there's a lot of hazards out there,' he said. 'So you've got to play with your head a little bit.'