DORAL, Fla. – Ernie Els deserves one more glorious run.
His scars say so.
Nobody’s heart has been cracked more in gut-wrenching finishes the last decade than Els.
With his victory Sunday at the WGC-CA Championship, Els earned his 61st title around the world, his 17th on the PGA Tour, and yet it’s the painful losses that have come to define the fading arc of his career these past few seasons.
“This was massive,” said Ricci Roberts, Els’ caddie. “A lot of people have doubted him. He ain’t done yet.”
With a masterful 6-under-par 66 Sunday, Els won for the first time in two years, just the second time on the PGA Tour in six years.
Those ambitions seemed lost in dramatic failures, in the disappointment that grew so heavy in trying so hard and coming so close.
You can trace it all back to 2004, when Els had a chance to win all four majors and didn’t win any of them.
That’s the year he had one arm in the green jacket, where he led by three shots on the back nine only to finish and watch Phil Mickelson birdie five of the last seven holes to beat him. It’s the year he went out with Retief Goosen in the final Sunday pairing of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock and shot 80. That’s the year Todd Hamilton beat him in a playoff at the British Open and the year he three-putted the final green at the PGA Championship to miss out on a playoff.
Els hasn’t been the same since. His victory Sunday at Doral was just his second on the PGA Tour since that wretched season ended.
There have been other scarring losses, too many of them in beat downs at the hands of Tiger Woods. Nobody’s endured more lashings from Woods in this era than Els. He’s finished second to Woods seven times in his career, more than any other player on the planet. He once lost an eight-shot lead to Woods in the final round of the Johnnie Walker Classic in 1998.
“It’s been a battle,” Roberts said.
Roberts has been on Els’ bag for nearly 18 years. He was there for all three of Els’ major championship triumphs, and he likes his bosses’ chances again. He likes them because of the way Els is putting again.
“He made putts today, which he hasn’t done in two years,” Roberts said. “You make putts and anything’s possible.”
The Masters is a month away, and suddenly Els has to be counted among the favorites. That speaks to what winning at Doral meant. Els has finished sixth or better five times at Augusta National, but he hasn’t contended there since Mickelson beat him in ‘04. He’s missed the cut the last three times he’s played the Masters.
“Two years ago when I won [the Honda Classic], I got all carried away and thought I was going to win Augusta,” Els said. “This time, I just want to take this in.”
Els has tried to push himself back on top before with bold pledges. In ’06, he announced his plan to gain back the No. 1 ranking. That didn’t work out so well. This time, he’s fighting his way back with hard work. He is impressing his inner circle with his devotion to work.
“He’s as dedicated to his game as he was the first day he came out,” his wife, Liezl, said. “Because people call him the Big Easy, it’s to forget how hard he works and how much he wants it.”
Roberts will tell you that Els still burns to win the career Grand Slam. It doesn’t seem so farfetched now that he could still add to his two U.S. Open championships and his British Open title. He needs to win the Masters and the PGA Championship to claim titles in all four majors.
The Masters will be about overcoming the cruel memories he has there, but Els will have this fantastic Doral finish to feed upon. He didn’t make a bogey in the final round. The balky putting stroke that’s plagued his game for too long is working again. He holed a 24-foot putt to save par at the 14th Sunday. He tamed the Blue Monster with just 26 putts over the final round.
The PGA Championship is at Whistling Straits, where Els tied for fourth six years ago.
Els’ family and friends know how deep the scars run and how much Els still wants to win majors.
“My cell phone is going berserk,” Liezl said with her husband signing his scorecard.
The victory means her husband, once the No. 1 player in the world, is relevant on the big stages again.
“It means he’s back on track,” Liezl said.