DORAL, Fla. – Ernie Els can sense he’s close.
His game’s turning back on familiar pathways, along exhilarating routes that have led to mountaintops he’s eager to revisit.
The climb back to his best golf is taking him through the TPC Blue Monster at Doral this week.
“I’m in a really good space right now,” Els said after posting a 6-under-par 66 Friday to take the second-round lead at the WGC-CA Championship.
Els holds his first 36-hole lead in a PGA Tour event since he won the Honda Classic two years ago. It’s confirmation that his full powers may be coming within reach again, powers that helped him win 60 times around the world, 16 of them PGA Tour events.
This weekend will be about remembering how to close. Els, in his prime, could close hard and fast when he got his hands around a lead. He’s won five of the last six times he has taken a 36-hole lead in PGA Tour events.
Els, though, turned 40 last October. He’s won just one PGA Tour event in the last five years. There’s been angst and frustration feeling his powers slip away, but that’s what makes this opportunity feel so good. Els won at Doral in ’02 and likes where he’s got his game again.
“For some reason, I feel really good mentally this year,” said Els, who had top-10 finishes at the Farmers Insurance Open and Northern Trust Open and a tie for 12th at the Sony Open. “I feel a bit more fresh than I’ve been. I’m up for it a little bit more this year. I’m a bit more excited about my whole game.”
That came through in the aftermath of last Sunday’s finish, when Els stunk it up in the final round of the Honda Classic.
He shot 75, his worst round of the year leading to his worst finish of the year, a tie for 67th.
Instead of stomping home and moping around his house at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., just up the road from the Honda Classic, he marched to the club’s driving range. He stayed until dark, hitting balls to work out what had gone wrong in an otherwise solid start to this season. He’s been a fiend on the range this spring.
“I feel like I’m close, and I don’t want to let it go,” Els said.
Charl Schwartzel, an up-and-coming young star from Els’ native South Africa, is three shots behind Els. He knows how close Els believes he’s getting to top form because he was Els’ house guest all last week. Els dragged him to the range with him after that lousy finish at Honda.
“I hit balls with Ernie,” Schwartzel said. “People probably don’t think he practices that much, but he works a hell of a lot. I told him, his swing looks so good, it’s only a matter of time until he plays as he can play.”
Chubby Chandler, Els’ agent, sees a man possessed.
“Ernie’s working harder than I’ve ever seen him work before,” Chandler said.
Els moved his family from their London base to Jupiter almost two years ago. It’s a move Els believes is good for both his family and his game. A large reason for the move was to get his 7-year-old son, Ben, the special help South Florida offers for children with autism. Els publicly revealed his son’s condition shortly after winning the Honda Classic two years ago. He formed the Els for Autism Foundation and is helping the fight to find the causes of autism.
As part of the move, Els cut back his traditionally extensive international schedule. He's spending less time making transcontinental flights and more time tinkering around the house.
“Being at home here with the kids must be a positive, spending a bit more time there,” Els said. “I felt a bit more grounded. I felt a bit more calm than maybe previous years.”
Bob Rotella, Els’ sports psychologist, sees the difference the new home base is making.
“What peace of mind means is tough to explain,” said Rotella, who worked with Els this week. “Ernie’s very happy living at the Bear’s Club. His wife, his kids, they’re happy and settled in. He’s got a very clear mind about what he’s doing.”
That clear mind sees opportunities to add to three major championships before age finally limits those chances.
“The golf courses we are playing in the majors this year, I love them,” Els said. “I’ve done well at Pebble Beach. I’ve done well at St. Andrews, and I did well at Whistling Straits. I like those courses. I feel if I have my game there, I could have a good chance.”
Els endured heartbreak finishing second to Phil Mickelson at the ’04 Masters. It was his second runner-up finish there.
“I think it’s affected him the last couple years,” Chandler said. “I would love to see him pull it off this weekend because it would give him a different confidence going to the Masters.”