SAN DIEGO - Ernie Els was walking to the practice range Wednesday at Torrey Pines when he was stopped by a security guard who has not spent much time around golf tournaments.
“Are you a professional?” the guard asked him.
This is new territory for Els, a three-time major champion and former No. 1 in the world.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Big Easy starts a new season without assurances that he will be at the Masters. He might not be eligible for two World Golf Championships over the next six weeks.
And for the first time since he cares to remember, Els finds himself looking at the world ranking. He is at No. 57, and that’s after getting a boost from a runner-up finish last week at the Volvo Champions event in South Africa.
“I look at it now,” Els said. “I never used to. When you’re comfortably in the top 10, top 20, you don’t look at these things. Now, I’m on the other side of the wheel. I’ve got to play myself into events. I’ve got to get into the Masters, into Doral, into the Match Play. And that’s fine with me. And if I don’t get in, that’s fine with me.
“I feel like I’m going to have a good year,” he said. “I feel good about it.”
For what he’s trying to accomplish, being at the Farmers Insurance Open might seem like a peculiar choice.
Most of golf’s biggest stars are halfway around the world in Abu Dhabi this week, which includes Tiger Woods, whose seven wins at Torrey Pines includes the 2008 U.S. Open. The top four players in the world also are in the Middle East - Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer - meaning there figures to be more world ranking points.
Torrey Pines offers a deeper field, yet only one of the top 10 in Dustin Johnson. Phil Mickelson is the biggest star this week at No. 15 in the world, no longer having to share the state with Woods in his hometown.
Among the PGA Tour players who waited until the fourth week to make their 2012 debut are Hunter Mahan, Geoff Ogilvy and Rickie Fowler, who starts his third full year still looking for his first tour win.
Mickelson narrowly made the cut last week in the Humana Challenge, and now feels ready to go in a tournament he has won three times, but not in the 10 years since his old friend Rees Jones beefed up the South Course.
A year ago, Mickelson needed an eagle on the par-5 18th to force a playoff, and he had his caddie tend the flag from 72 yards away as Mickelson tried to hole out with a sand wedge. It was close. It was an exciting moment. But he missed.
“I feel like after having one week under my belt and hopefully ironing out some of the kinks, I think I’m ready to get myself back in it on the weekend,” Mickelson said. “That’s certainly the goal.”
Els has been traveling the world since he first left South Africa as a teenager to turn pro, and he was thinking about it again. His original plan was to start in Hawaii at the Sony Open, head back to South Africa, and perhaps fly up to Middle East to play three tournaments in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai, where he said he had a good offer.
“The Middle East made the most sense,” he said. “There are stronger fields, more points, and I need the points to get into the top 50 and all that. But I’ve made my decision. I’ve done that for so many years. It’s important for me to be home now. And if I play well here, I’ll still get into the top 50.”
He has three more weeks to stay in the top 65 and get into the Match Play Championship (Mickelson already has said he is not playing Match Play for a family vacation). Els might even add Pebble Beach if the forecast is for a blue sky, bright sun and splendid ocean views, such as the case at Torrey Pines.
Els, at least, has some momentum on his side.
He closed with a 67 at Fancourt, site of the 2003 Presidents Cup, and lost in a three-way playoff won by Branden Grace, who captured his second straight European Tour event. Grace is only the latest player influenced by Els, taking part in his junior foundation, just as Louis Oosthuizen did before him.
“He’s a hell of a player, that kid,” Els said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. But it was good for me to be there. I’m working on a couple of things. The first three rounds, I was kind of loosening up. The final round I played well. It’s nice to get going a bit.”
Mickelson feels the same way. It’s alarming to see him out of the top 10, though Mickelson has only one win in his last 34 starts on the PGA Tour dating to his Masters win in 2010.
Lefty feels as if he’s a better player than he was two years ago, though he paused briefly knowing that the results don’t back that up. He attributes that mainly to his putting. Mickelson tried a belly putter late last season, but has ditched that to a convention putter.
“There’s no easy short cut in putting,” he said. “No matter what method you use, you still have to see the line and match it up with the proper speed. I think that for me, I was looking for a shortcut with the belly putter.”
He likes the work he has put in during his two-month offseason, going back to a blade putter and his old stroke. And he has high expectations during this stretch of five straight events on the West Coast, all at courses where he has won before.
“In the past, I’ve had some success here,” he said. “So certainly, I expect to win. If not, I don’t want to say it’s a failure, but it certainly wouldn’t be what I’m looking for or expect.