Els (66) winning battle against putting woes

By Will GrayMay 12, 2016, 8:17 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Even after a surprising return to the leaderboard, even after a round that gave credence to the notion that his short-game woes are behind him, Ernie Els couldn’t bring himself to say the word.

“Listen, I don’t have the…” Els started, then stopped. He paused, lowered his voice and crouched a little closer to the small group of reporters huddled around him behind the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass.

“I don’t have the yips, you know?” he said, this time barely above a whisper. “That’s a different deal.”

Most golfers hesitate to give breath to the dreaded y-word, but Els’ pause is even more understandable. After all, he lived through the worst-case scenario on the game’s biggest stage just last month, undone by a six-putt on the opening hole of the Masters.

“There’s a short up there somewhere and you just can’t do what you normally do,” Els said at the time. “I was standing there, I’ve got a 3-footer, I’ve made thousands of three-footers and I just couldn’t take it back.”

That was simply the latest struggle for Els on the greens, as on at least two other occasions in recent months his short-range misses have turned into viral sensations.

But Thursday at The Players Championship, Els once again resembled the player who has won four major titles. He made birdies on five of his first seven holes, turned in 31 and ultimately ended up with a 6-under 66 that tied for his lowest round this season and left him three shots behind Jason Day.

The Players Championship: Articles, photos and videos

That balky putter, the one that has caused so many headaches of late, actually turned into a strength. Els needed only 24 putts to complete his round, holing every putt he faced inside 10 feet.

“He looked awesome out there,” said Aaron Baddeley, who played alongside Els in the opening round. “He putted really nice, he hit a lot of good putts. The putts he didn’t make looked like they were going in. He’s obviously done some really good work, and it paid off.”

In the wake of his Masters debacle, Els said he was flooded with input from people hoping to help repair his frayed nerves. They came from all corners of the globe: South Africa, England, Denmark, Sweden. Some offered tips, while others offered equipment fixes.

For Els, though, the best results came from simplifying his thought process – not adding new components to it.

“A lot of people want to help you and get you better and so on,” he said. “It’s like a cliché. You ask all these guys, (but) if I just did what I thought I should do, I’d be better off. But sometimes you listen.”

It was listening that did him in at Augusta National, as a well-meaning tip led to a cringe-worthy display on the opening green.

It also led Els to begin reading up on the science behind the yips and what causes them, after which the 46-year-old concluded he has been afflicted by a different condition.

“That’s like, something neurological. Mine is just a lack of confidence, and I’ve just got to see more golf balls go in the hole and I think I’ll be there,” he said. “It’s just kind of an emotion, an anxiety, and it comes from a lack of confidence.”

That confidence was not lacking during Els’ opening round, as the “Big Easy” was back to his smiling, affable ways. But as any player who has faced a similar plight can attest, a potential relapse lurks around the corner of every 3-foot putt.

Bernhard Langer understands that better than perhaps any other Tour player, having first been afflicted with putting issues in 1976. Langer estimated Wednesday that he suffered through four different bouts with the yips during his career, each one forcing him to face some sobering questions.

“Every time you have it, you wonder, ‘Well, will this ever go away, and how?’” Langer said. “You know how it is; when we’re in a dark valley, we can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you want to get out of there as soon as possible.”

Els addressed his problems head-on in the immediate aftermath of Augusta, but, like Langer, he then sought to put it behind him as quickly as possible. For Els, that meant getting back to work right away with the RBC Heritage the following week, where his putter began to turn around. It also meant relying on the advice of swing coach David Leadbetter, with whom Els has worked off-and-on for more than two decades.

“Me and him, we understand each other like I understand my wife,” Els said. “I know where he’s going with all this stuff.”

Leadbetter has had Els reviewing footage of his swing from successful campaigns like 2002 and 2004 and Els, now fully healthy after battling recent knee and hip ailments, is finally able to replicate what he sees.

“I feel comfortable, and I’ve been working hard since (the Masters) on things that I have been doing,” he said. “Hopefully it holds up. I feel good.”

At least for one day, Ernie Els kept his demons at bay – even though the scar tissue they have inflicted remains clearly visible. Tomorrow, the battle begins anew.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.