Ernie Els makes return to a major leaderboard


2009 PGA ChampionshipCHASKA, Minn. ' The Big Easy looked big again.
His game looked easy again.
Ernie Els emerged Saturday from the competitive fog he has been lost in the last few seasons.
He came back to us in a burst of six birdies over the first 15 holes to the delight of the enormous crowds at Hazeltine National.
Ernie Els at the PGA Championship
Ernie Els is five back heading into Sunday. (Getty Images)
The crowd was unbelievable, Els said. Felt like a home game to me. They were standing up in the stands when I was coming up to some of the greens. I could really feel they were pulling for me.
In the end, though, they couldnt pull him hard enough or far enough to get him completely clear of the fog.
After mounting a bold run to get to within a shot of Tiger Woods on the back nine at the PGA Championship, Els stumbled home, closing with three consecutive bogeys to remind us how hard the games become for him as he nears his 40th birthday.
It all kind of fell apart on me at the end, Els said.
Els has a Hall-of-Fame record. He has 44 international victories, 16 PGA Tour titles and three major championships. Its a nice resume, but one he hopes isnt a finished work. He has just one PGA Tour title in his last 75 starts, one in the last four-and-a-half seasons. His Honda Classic victory last year is his only PGA Tour title since 2004, a fact contributing to the former No. 1 player in the worlds slip to 26th in the world rankings.
With Els 40th birthday coming up on Oct. 17, there were signs Saturday that his best form may be within reach again.
A lot of good things happened, the finish just wasnt great, Els said. But Im not totally out of it.
With a 2-under-par 70, Els is tied for sixth, five shots off the lead, which seems a mile back given that Woods is leading.
Still, there was so much promise in Els early run Saturday, so much to remind us what we loved about his broad-shouldered game and elegant swing.
With Els name hitting so few leaderboards of late, theres been little to cheer in his game.
Somethings looked broken, but we arent quite sure what.
His spirit?
Els won two U.S. Opens and a British Open, but he wanted so much more, and yet at nearly every turn in his quest to make history over the last decade, Woods was there, blocking his way. Els has finished second to Woods more than any other player on the planet. Seven times hes finished second to Woods in PGA Tour events, including two major championships. Els once lost an eight-stroke lead to Woods in the final round of the Johnnie Walker Classic in 1998. It might have been the most damaging of all his losses to Woods.
His heart?
Els revealed last year that his 6-year-old son, Ben, has autism. His boys condition has changed his entire familys life and inspired him to help find a cure.
His swing?
Els ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a water skiing accident in the summer of 2005 and struggled in a sluggish recovery.
His putting stroke?
Els ranks 157th on the PGA Tour in putting average this season and was 127th last season.
His uncooperative putter has caused him great angst over the last two seasons because he likes his ball striking.
Im hitting it good, but Im not getting any reward, he said after Fridays round. Its mindboggling.
Els said his putter can make him so crazy he finishes rounds wanting to break things.
Whatever happened to Els best form, whether it was the beatings Woods put on him, his hearts tug toward more important matters, or all of these challenges piling up, he found encouragement to build on when he starts Sundays final round. Though he missed a 3-footer for par at the 17th on Saturday, his putter wasnt bad. With a chip-in for birdie at the 12th, he needed just 27 putts on the round.
I feel like a lot of good, positive things have been starting to happen, Els said. And Im starting to see shots a lot more clearly, and Ive just got to keep that going tomorrow.
There will be a legion of fans trying to help him again.
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