Els Ready to Shift Gears at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Ernie Els wanted to ease his way into the season, careful not to play too hard too fast as he continues to recover from knee surgery that knocked him out of golf the last five months of the year.
 
The second week of April'the Masters'thats when he wanted to be ready to sprint.
 
In that respect, Els believes he is on pace.
 
He had a chance to win the Dubai Desert Classic, making a birdie on the 18th hole to force a playoff with Tiger Woods, then losing when Els hit his approach into the water. For someone who has lost to Woods more than anyone, Els wasnt terribly disturbed. He knew he wasnt fully ready.
 
Success has been moderate on the PGA Tour'a tie for 23rd in the Nissan Open and a tie for seventh two weeks ago at Doral, along with his traditional first-round exit from the Match Play Championship.
 
But as the Bay Hill Invitational gets under way Thursday, Els is ready to shift gears.
 
I really want to get back into winning tournaments and competing, play the way that I know I can, he said Wednesday. After last week and the tournaments Ive played, I know where I am with my game. I know where I am with my knee. And Im basically ready to step it up a little bit now.
 
Els and Woods headline a top-heavy field at Bay Hill, which features seven of the top 10 players. Joining them from among the top six in the world are Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia.
 
They will be tested by a Bay Hill Club course that appears to be firmer than usual, with rough so thick tournament host Arnold Palmer was beaming.
 
Tour officials recently set the mower height to 31/2 inches, which Palmer grudgingly accepted, but hes certain the grass is consistently deep enough that anyone who misses the fairways will pay for it. Woods figures that might be the case, saying it would be hit or miss whether you can get a good lie.
 
Is the grass so thick and high that Woods cant advance a 9-iron?
 
I can hit 9-iron out, he said. How far? Its a different story.
 
Woods will be trying to continue building his momentum toward the Masters when the Bay Hill Invitational starts Thursday under what is expected to be dry conditions. He already has won three times in five starts this year, two of those on the PGA Tour and once in Dubai on the European tour.
 
Bay Hill brings good vibes, a place where he won four straight times until his streak was broken in 2003. He also won the first of three straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles at Bay Hill, despite hitting his drive out-of-bounds on the 18th with a 1-up lead, winning in extra holes.
 
Its one of those golf courses that fits your eye, Woods said, a phrase he also throws around at Torrey Pines, where he won this year for the fourth time. Not too many golf courses you play all year that you have that happen, but this is certainly one of those for me.
 
Kenny Perry wont be back to defend his title at Bay Hill because of knee surgery this week that will keep him off the PGA Tour at least through April. Perry won on a rain-soaked Bay Hill, which required four rounds to be played over three days, the tournament ending when Vijay Singh rinsed his approach in the water on the 18th.
 
Els doesnt have many fond memories of last year.
 
He was paired with part of the Big Five'Woods and Goosen'and after keeping pace with a 71, he soared to a 77 in the second round and had to rally over the final 36 holes simply to tie for 23rd.
 
The 36-year-old South African has rarely played well here, except for 1998, when he was grouped with Woods and Davis Love III over the 36-hole Sunday and smoked both of them.
 
That was the only time he has seriously contended, surprising for a guy who has been playing since 1993, when Palmer offered him an exemption.
 
Ive had my battles around this golf course, he said.
 
The bigger battle now is his patience'not getting too far ahead of himself, believing hes on schedule, trying not to look at the calendar toward April 3, the Monday of the Masters.
 
Els decided not to go home for a week to London, instead playing two days at Augusta National to get adjusted to the changes, then headed to fabled Seminole Golf Club in south Florida, and over to Jack Nicklaus golf course, appropriately called The Bears Club.
 
They call him the Big Easy, but anyone who spends any time around Els knows he can be hard on himself. It is important to have a good group around him, such as wife Liezl, to remind him to stay the course.
 
They keep on reminding me, Listen, were not worried about now; were looking at the second week of April. Lets crawl before we have to walk, that kind of thing. But as a competitor, its hard to explain. You just want to be there. You want to be in the mix all the time.
 
Where is he now?
 
Im jogging at the moment, Els said, breaking into that easy smile.
 
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