Els Charting His Own Course

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04 Sony OpenHONOLULU -- Ernie Els boarded his private plane for Thailand feeling as optimistic about his game as he did last year, minus one of the trophies from the Hawaii swing.
 
'I made big strides this week,' Els said after winning the Sony Open for the second straight year in a playoff. 'It's a long, hard battle all year. I want to give it a go, see if I can contend in the majors and follow my dream and hopefully achieve it one day. I'm feeling good.'
 
Els swept both PGA Tour events a year ago, the Mercedes Championships and the Sony Open. Everyone figured he was poised to have a big year and challenge Tiger Woods.
 
He went on to win seven times around the world, but he failed to win a major and lost ground to Woods.
 
Els had to settle for only one victory on the islands this year, but it was memorable.
 
His week began on Tuesday when he played a practice round with 14-year-old Michelle Wie, who posted the best score (68) by a woman competing against the men on the PGA Tour.
 
Wie said her practice round with Els put her at ease for the week, and her performance was remarkable. With two birdies on her final three holes, she missed the cut by one shot.
 
The Big Wiesy gave way to the Big Easy at the end of the week.
 
Els closed with a 65 and holed a do-or-die birdie putt from 10 feet on the final hole to force a playoff with Harrison Frazar. On the first extra hole, Els had to get up-and-down for par to extend the playoff. Then after blowing a great opportunity to win, he closed out the Texan with a 30-foot birdie on third playoff hole.
 
He became the first repeat winner at Waialae since Corey Pavin in 1987, and the first player since Nick Faldo in the Masters (1989-90) to win the same tournament back-to-back in a playoff.
 
Where does it leave him?
 
All over the place.
 
Els is the most global golfer among active players. He will take a week off in Thailand before playing in the Johnnie Walker Classic, then play twice in Australia before returning to the PGA Tour, either in February or March.
 
When he returns, he has two players to catch.
 
Woods, who did not play in the Sony Open, remains No. 1 and likely will stay there at least another year.
 
Vijay Singh is No. 2, and his 10th consecutive finish in the top 10 at the Sony Open did nothing to suggest that was going to change.
 
Els, however, is concerned only with himself.
 
Once a sleepy little event, the Sony Open has emerged as one of the best stops on the PGA Tour. Waialae is a classic design that tests all aspects of the game, and with much of the country stuck in the snow, Honolulu is not the worst place to be in January.
 
'This used to be a hidden gem,' Els said.
 
Asked if he would advise Woods to play at Waialae, Els smiled.
 
'No,' he said. 'Why should he come? He can stay in Florida.'
 
Els, once spooked by the sight of Woods winning four straight majors and dominating golf, has been making those jokes for the better part of a year.
 
Even so, he is conditioning his psyche to pay more attention to his own game than to what Woods is doing.
 
But the two might cross paths more often this year.
 
Woods is scheduled to play in the Dubai Desert Classic in early March, where Els is the defending champion. There also is speculation that Woods will play at the World Match Play Championship in England in the fall, were the Big Easy is defending his title and aiming for a record sixth victory.
 
Does it matter where Woods plays?
 
'Tiger is Tiger,' Els said. 'You know he's going to be around. It really doesn't matter all that much. Hopefully, I can play like at Dubai when we meet again. I just want to get better and stay on course.'
 
It isn't just Woods he is chasing.
 
Vijay Singh has emerged as another layer for Els to get through.
 
The big Fijian made some bad swings and caught some bad breaks at the Sony Open, taking a double bogey in three rounds. He also made 19 birdies and two eagles, and when the final scores were tallied, he had his 10th consecutive top-10 finish dating to the PGA Championship in August.
 
Still, Els reminded everyone at Waialae that he is still a player who can win any week.
 
His performance at the Sony Open suggests he should buy some property along Waialae. Els has shot all 16 rounds in the 60s since he started playing the tournament in 2001. He has never finished worse than fifth.
 
A lei was draped around his neck as he left for the airport Sunday night. He had a beer in his hand, and his spirits were high. Despite his nickname, he is not one to relax when it comes to his golf.
 
Els could have won the Sony Open much earlier than a playoff if not for a silly three-putt bogey on the 15th. Frazar took advantage by catching Els with a birdie on the 17th, and the Texan twice had putts that would have won.
 
'I can get better,' Els said. 'Look at 15 -- you three-putt when you shouldn't. Then you make it really hard on yourself. There are still things I can improve on. I've got to keep grinding away.'
 
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