ORLANDO, Fla. – Ernie Els can feel his powers beginning to return.
He sees signs that all his hard work has moved him to the edge of a breakthrough, but he can feel the irritation of something else, too.
Els can feel intensifying scrutiny trying to bring the nagging, gnawing notion of doubt into his world.
It’s a force he’s trying to keep out, but it’s a struggle with questions still coming over his late stumble Sunday at the Transitions Championship.
After opening with a 1-under-par 71 Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Els stopped to answer questions from media. He fought frustration when questions continued to focus on what went wrong in Palm Harbor.
“You guys have to understand, I started the final round three shots behind,” Els said. “I played a helluva round to get to the lead, then, OK, I made some mistakes. You guys keep going on like I've killed somebody. I missed a couple of putts, and I missed a couple of shots. It is what it is, I’m over it. If you guys can get over it, it’s water under the bridge.”
The pressure escalates on Els this week. He is determined to qualify for the Masters, a championship he hasn’t missed since 1993, but his time is running out. A victory at the Transitions would have won him a return to Augusta National.
This week marks Els' last chance to earn a Masters invite by cracking the top 50 in the world rankings. He’s No. 62. If he doesn’t crack the top 50, there will be one final chance next week. He will play the Shell Houston Open, but he would have to win it to make the Masters.
In his 18 Masters’ appearances, Els has finished second twice. He has logged six top-10 finishes. From 2000 through 2004, he never finished worse than a tie for sixth.
Els played well Thursday at Bay Hill with the course playing tough, but he missed a 4-foot birdie putt at his last hole to finish five back of leader Charlie Wi. It brought back focus on his Transitions finish, where he missed a 3-foot putt at the final hole that would have gotten him into a playoff. He had a one-shot lead with two holes to play.
Els, 42, has shown his determination to make the Masters, playing his fifth PGA Tour event in six weeks. He likes how his game has responded the last month.
“In a slump like I’ve been in, sometimes it’s good to play to see where your game is,” Els said. “I obviously see what I have to work on, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m just about there. Just keep my head up and try to put good rounds together, and I think the wins are going to come.”
The challenge is in building on all the good shots that got him into contention at the Transitions, that got him on the leaderboard early Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It’s also in keeping out the doubt that comes in so many questions.