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Big Goals for Big Easy

2006 Chrysler ChampionshipPALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Ernie Els has never missed the season-ending TOUR Championship when playing a full schedule with a healthy body, so he jotted that down as part of his global schedule when laying out his plans for the year.
But not everything has gone according to plan.
Els thought the Chrysler Championship might be a good place for him to get ready for East Lake next week. But at No. 30 on the PGA TOUR money list, he needs a good week at Innisbrook simply to get into the TOUR Championship. He only has a $53,000 margin over Tim Clark at No. 31, knowing that any of the 60 guys behind him could win and potentially knock him out.
'I really don't want to miss it,' Els said Wednesday. 'Finishing in the top 30 would give you something. I haven't had too much to grab onto this year. I've had some good finishes outside of the U.S. In the U.S. itself, I haven't really been up to my best.'
Els is back in the United States for the first time in two months. Now, the goal is to stay two weeks.
Since joining the PGA TOUR in 1994, the year he won his first U.S. Open, Els has missed the TOUR Championship only one time. That was in 1998, when his season was hampered by back injuries.
Els is not alone in his pursuit of secondary gains at the Chrysler Championship, which starts Thursday at Innisbrook.
This is the final full-field tournament of the year, one last chance for players to either get into the TOUR Championship (top 30 on the money list) or the Masters (top 40). Perhaps more critical is keeping a job for next year, and that will be decided by the top 125 for full status and the top 150 for conditional status.
The odd man out appeared to be Bubba Dickerson.
He had a chance to sew up his card last week until a 72-78 weekend at Disney moved him up to No. 125. But with such a low standing, he was the third alternate at Innisbrook, and milling around the locker room, he was losing hope that three guys would pull out of the event over the next 24 hours.
Dickerson, a former U.S. Amateur champion, blamed no one but himself.
'I could have taken care of it last week,' he said. 'I wouldn't be in this situation if I had played better golf. It's tough to take.'
He could still keep his position, but it's unlikely. Any of the three guys behind him on the money list only have to make the cut to give Dickerson one more tournament this year -- the final stage of Q-school.
'I would walk away from here thinking I'm toast,' he said.
For Els, more troubling than his precarious position on the money list is the fact he hasn't hoisted a trophy all year, anywhere around the world. He lost a playoff to Tiger Woods in Dubai. He was one shot behind Woods going into the third round at the British Open, but wound up in third place, five shots behind.
As much as the Big Easy would love to be at the TOUR Championship next week, he has a bigger goal in mind. Els loves starting the year in Hawaii at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, and the only way to get there is to win.
'That's the urgency I want,' he said.
But even Kapalua is but one small step toward a grandiose goal. Els believes he lost his focus this year, spending too much time worrying about what happened in the past instead of paying attention to what he can accomplish in the future.
Perhaps no other elite player from his generation has endured more crushing losses than the 37-year-old South African. Two years ago, he missed playoffs in the Masters and PGA Championship by one shot, and lost in a playoff at the British Open. The other major that year was the U.S. Open, where he played in the final group and shot 80.
Then came the knee injury last July while boating in the Mediterranean, which cost him the final three months of the PGA TOUR season. Els returned sooner than expected, but still had trouble earlier this year trusting that his knee would hold up.
'It's not like I've fallen off the map completely,' Els said. 'I haven't been consistent; I know that. But I don't want to read too much into it. I want to get back and forget about the past and start moving forward toward my goal.'
The TOUR Championship would be a start. Kapalua would be even sweeter.
But he has a bigger blueprint in mind. Els said he has given himself a 'realistic goal' for the next three years, which will require dedication to his body and his mind.
Why three years? Els smiled, as if he was going to keep that to himself. But what he said next made it clear that he has not given up his pursuit of returning to No. 1 in the world.
'If you look at where the No. 1 player is right now, you're not going to get near him in one year or two years,' Els said. 'So I've got to give myself a three-year stretch to try to approach him.'
Els has not been No. 1 since 1998, and he could have reached the top twice in 2004 with victories in either the British Open or the PGA Championship. He has slipped to No. 7, and needs a telescope to bring Woods into view.
'For a good four, five, six years here, I played at a very high level,' Els said. 'When you get in contention, you're going to lose quite a bit, especially playing against Tiger. That's in the past. I feel good about my game. There are a lot of good things to look forward to.'
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