Els Hopes to Be Turning the Corner


2007 PODS ChampionshipTAMPA BAY, Fla. -- A bead of sweat dripped off Ernie Els brow when he stopped for a five-minute chat Wednesday before his pro-am round at the PODS Championship.
The hard part is over for the Big Easy. The hard work is not.
Els ended an 0-for-47 stretch on the PGA TOUR when he won the Honda Classic, an astounding drought given his considerable talent. He is among four active players with at least three major championships, but none of the others has gone more than a year without winning on the worlds toughest golf circuit.
It took a few days for his victory to sink it, and it was really driven home on the range at Innisbrook.
The guys are congratulating you, he said. Theyre not saying hard luck or bad luck or whatever that is.
Els would not have imagined winning this way.
He failed to make a birdie over the final 11 holes at PGA National and played them in 1 over. That proved to be enough, however, when the hard luck fell to Mark Calcavecchia, whose bunker shot inexplicably rolled through the green and into a hazard; and bad luck sided with Luke Donald, whose chip to force a playoff stopped inches short.
Thats what had been happening to Els lately, whether it was Boo Weekley chipping in twice to beat him at Hilton Head last year, or Els hitting a tee shot out of bounds on the 18th hole at Kapalua, a fairway wide enough to land a jumbo jet.
The losses kept piling up.
He couldnt keep up with Tiger Woods at Royal Liverpool in 2006 and started too far behind him at Southern Hills a year later. The latest blow had come last month at Dubai, when Els missed two short putts that forced him to go for broke on the par-5 18th at Dubai, only to hit a fairway metal into the water on the last hole.
When youre around long enough like me, you know youre going to have losses, Els said. Losses are tough. You play to win every week. When you get close, you expect to win. I had many, many times I couldnt close the deal. So its really nice to get this one, and hopefully, this is a fresh start for the next couple of years.
If nothing else, its a good start with the Masters looming a month away.
Els has changed his worldwide travel schedule slightly to spend more chunks of time in the United States, and he signed up for the entire Florida swing. The hope was to build a foundation, make some progress before getting to Augusta National.
The victory should pay loads of dividends.
Els has enough ability to contend at majors even when his confidence is shaky. He was paired in the final group with Woods in the third round of the 2006 British Open, where he finished third. He was one shot out of the lead at Carnoustie a year later until dropping shots down the stretch and tying for fourth. And after a brief run at the 2007 PGA Championship, he wound up third.
Ending that nasty 3 1/2 -year drought on the PGA TOUR should only help.
It does matter, Els said. I really put my sights onto playing a solid Florida stretch because I needed to get some confidence going before Augusta, he said. Obviously, it was a great start.
But he is far from satisfied. Els said his driving has been suspect under pressure over the last couple of years, and he has not been able to make the putts that mattered most down the stretch. Even though he won, hes not convinced those problems are behind him.
And that explains why this week is no time to celebrate.
Even last week, the final nine (holes) of the tournament, I had a lot of chances, but I still didnt quite hole out, Els said. Im still working on that. If Tiger or Phil (Mickelson) or other players were there, maybe they would have beaten me.
Woods and Mickelson are not at Innisbrook; that reunion takes place next week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Els, who has returned to Big Three status in the world ranking at the moment, still faces a stern test at Innisbrook, regarded by most players as one of the strongest tour courses on Florida without having to change its par to a 70.
The Copperhead course does not have a Florida look to it. There are changes in elevation, rare in a state where an ant pile can pass as a mountain. Most fairways are lined with trees, giving it a traditional look, and forcing players to think off the tee.
The only issue at the moment is sponsorship. PODS signed on as the title sponsor last year, but the company is for sale, and the tour is looking for another sponsor to keep Tampa Bays spot on the PGA TOUR rotation.
Els is part of a field that includes defending champion Calcavecchia, Steve Stricker, Justin Rose of England, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and Davis Love III.
If it took a few days for victory to sink it for Els, it took at least that long for Calcavecchias sting to go away from Honda. He still doesnt know how a bunker shot that looked good on the green wound up in the rocks.
I was a little more bummed out than I thought I would be, Calcavecchia said. Some things happened that didnt have to happen. And I screwed up a few plays where I didnt have to, either. It certainly could have been a win for me.
It turned out to be a win for Els, and possibly a big one.
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