Els prepares for (maybe) his last Masters

By Will GrayApril 3, 2017, 12:15 pm

Ernie Els plans to have a few extra friends with him this week in Augusta.

Sure, the usual collection of family and support staff will be present amidst the azaleas. But as he gets set to make his 23rd Masters appearance – and the last of the five-year exemption afforded to him for winning The Open in 2012 – Els has also rented out an extra house.

There he’ll host a cadre of old buddies and long-established acquaintances, those who haven’t tagged along in Augusta since his prime more than a decade ago.

“Basically the ‘oldies,’” Els said with a grin. “They’re all coming in, and we’re just going to have one last look around.”

When it comes to Els and Augusta National Golf Club, there was never supposed to be a “last look around.” Long off the tee with a deft touch around the greens, the “Big Easy” seemed destined to join the storied winners’ circle in short order. It was not a question of whether he’d ever enjoy the lifetime exemption of a past champion, but rather how many jackets would ultimately hang in his locker at the club.

When he made his Masters debut in 1994 at age 24, months before the first of his four major titles, Els shot a third-round 67 while paired with former champ Ben Crenshaw.

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“He’s kind of an Augusta specialist, and he was excited for me,” Els recalled. “We chatted afterwards, and he said how many times I was going to win it, and how my putting touch was so perfect that day.”

Crenshaw donned his second green jacket the very next year. More than two decades later, Els is still waiting for his invite into the Champions Locker Room.

“As it happened, you know, it just never kind of blossomed,” he said.

There’s a cruel bit of symmetry, a yin and yang, to the history books at Augusta National. For every Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, players to whom the course almost seemed to whisper words of inspiration, there was a Tom Weiskopf or a Greg Norman, those whose remarkable talent brought them within inches of the finish line but never quite across it.

Els, of course, always appeared headed for the former group but has somehow ended up in the latter.

“I think it’s sad to see him not having a jacket,” said Louis Oosthuizen, who played junior golf as a member of the Ernie Els Foundation in South Africa. “I think as someone who’s won majors, you sort of really want the green jacket if you’ve won more than one.”

Following that stellar debut, when he finished T-8, Els made the annual spring pilgrimage to Augusta each of the next 17 years. The prime portion of that run came from 2000-04, when he never finished worse than T-6 and was twice a runner-up.

It was in 2004 that he came closest, edged by Phil Mickelson on the final putt of what turned out to be one of the most memorable Masters ever. Els began the final round three shots off the lead but made a pair of eagles down the stretch to surge up the leaderboard.

“He’s got the green jacket by the collar,” proclaimed TV analyst David Feherty after Els birdied the par-5 15th to take a two-shot lead over Mickelson.

But it’s Mickelson, not Els, who now wears clothing with a logo commemorating the conclusion of that particular tournament. Els could only sit idly by on the putting green, preparing for a playoff that would never come, while Mickelson rolled in the most iconic putt of his career to win by a shot.

“The ’04 Masters is one that I was really disappointed about for a long time, but looking back now, I’m proud to have been involved in that battle. It’s really one of the great battles of my career,” Els said. “It’s kind of like, when I didn’t get that one, the writing was kind of on the wall, I think.”

As Mickelson prepares to return to a course where he has won twice more since then, he can barely square the notion that Els might be making his final appearance.

“It’s hard to believe that may be the case,” Mickelson said. “He’s such a good player. I have a hard time believing it will be his last.”

Like Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel grew up in Els’ shadow in South Africa. But he has since earned a seat at the annual champions’ dinner that may have once been reserved for Els, having surged to victory in 2011, and he points to 2004 as the fork in the road for his one-time idol.

“That one really hurt him,” Schwartzel said. “I think it’s one of those where, if you don’t do it early enough, it becomes a ‘thing.’ And once it becomes a ‘thing’ in this game – man, you’re fighting elements that you don’t even want to be fighting.”

True to Schwartzel’s words, Els hasn’t come close to winning the Masters since that duel with Mickelson. His consecutive appearance streak came to an end when he missed the 2012 edition of the tournament, only to be granted a five-year extension with his surprise win at Royal Lytham later that summer.

But the first four of those return trips haven’t yielded a top-10 result, leading Els to reflect on where things went wrong on a course he so dearly loves.

“I just think I always put a bit too much pressure on myself around Augusta,” he said. “Growing up in South Africa, seeing it on TV, starting to live it. And I think I was impatient a lot of times. Not taking my medicine, not playing the proper shot and then going from there. So I think that cost me.”

This time around, Els returns to Augusta a shell of his former self. He is ranked No. 409 in the world, having cracked the top 50 just once in 17 worldwide starts since last year’s Open. Once a fresh-faced newcomer, Els is now 47 with his best years admittedly well behind him.

“I feel sorry for him. I do,” Schwartzel said. “I just really feel sorry because I can see his mind is still thinking and he believes – and he practices now harder than he used to – that he’s still as good as he was 10 years ago. Somehow he’s just not able to do it now. Maybe the simple answer is age. I don’t know. I’ve heard him talk about it; I can see it almost hurts him. It’s frustrating, and I think humiliating for him, too.”

If the close call in 2004 was Els’ most heartbreaking chapter, last year served as his most cringe-worthy. After experimenting with a new putting technique early in the week, Els suffered what he now terms a “blip” that led to a six-putt from close range on the very first hole of the tournament.

It’s a replay that struck fear into the heart of anyone who has ever picked up a club, but it’s a memory that Els is able to laugh off one year later.

“It’s so embarrassing that people still don’t even want to go there, even my friends who have really helped me,” he said. “You play this game long enough, you’re going to embarrass yourself a couple of times. So that was one of them.”

It’s the type of disaster that might shake a player to his core, but Els continued with his round and eventually shot an 80. The next day he rebounded with 73, nearly making the cut, and went on to finish third in strokes gained putting the very next week at the RBC Heritage.

“I think there would have been a lot of guys walking off the golf course, or at least playing 18 holes and withdrawing,” Oosthuizen said. “He’s got too much respect for golf in general, and especially the Masters. But that was a tough event for him.”

“I think the membership liked it because I think if I would have walked off, it might have set a different tone to the thing,” Els said. “You’ve got to set an example. You’re not always going to be a winner. You’re going to be a loser sometimes, and you’ve got to handle it.”

It’s a phenomenon with which Els has more than his fair share of experience around the famed fairways and greens of Augusta National. Time and again, try as he might, the prize that always seemed like it would eventually end up on his doorstep found a way to remain just outside his grasp.

Yes, Els could one day earn another invite – contend next week, perhaps win for the 20th time on the PGA Tour, or crack the top 4 at one of the other major championships. But he instead intends to focus on the most likely scenario: that this will be his last, languid stroll down Magnolia Lane, flanked this time by those who mean the most to him.

Now in the twilight of a career filled with plenty of highlights, Els has come to terms with the fact that, for him, the Masters will always be a matter of “what could have been.”

“It is what it is,” he said. “If you don’t win it in 20-whatever starts, 23 starts, how many starts do you need to win a golf tournament?”

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.