HONOLULU – Ernie Els came all the way from Florida to a small island in the Pacific Ocean to start his PGA Tour season in the Sony Open. Even for a globe-trotter like Els, it seems like a long way to go for one tournament.
Then again, the Big Easy most likely will not be making as many big trips this year.
The most global golfer of his generation, Els sounds as though he finally is going to make good on his promise to cut back his enormous travel schedule as he pursues trophies and appearance money across the world.
Els has played at least two tournaments in Asia – Dubai, Qatar, even India one time – since he resumed playing the Match Play Championship in 2006. This year, he won’t be leaving America.The 40-year-old South African is now fully involved at his new home in south Florida having moved from London. His 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, is playing soccer, volleyball and basketball. His 7-year-old son, Ben, is making progress with autism.
“I’m not going to travel around as much this year,” Els said Wednesday. “I’m not going to the Middle East, so I can play a bigger schedule in the U.S. through the Masters.”
Instead of Qatar and Dubai, the Big Easy plans to be at Torrey Pines and Riviera. He might even throw Pebble Beach into the mix before heading to Arizona for the Match Play. Then, it’s off to Florida to play the entire swing except for Tampa. Els is a past champion at Honda, Doral and Bay Hill.
None of this would have been possible had he not moved to Florida.
“It was a very east start for me in the Middle East because it’s so close to South Africa,” he said. “You just fly to Dubai. But ever since we made this change to Florida, it seems like my international schedule, it’s really difficult to do from Florida. That’s why we lived in England for 10 or 11 years. It’s easy to get anywhere in the world within 12 hours.
“It’s difficult to do a Florida-to-Dubai trip, which is 16 to 18 hours, and then come back and try to be half-normal when you come back. It takes you two weeks to get back. The last two years, we’ve been talking about it.”
Ideally, Els would have been in Hawaii for two weeks. However, he failed to win last year for the first time in 20 years – not just the PGA Tour, but anywhere in the world – and thus was not eligible for the winners-only start at Kapalua.
As for the rest of the year?
Els turned 40 last fall. He looks around Waialae and sees Vijay Singh at age 46, Retief Goosen about to turn 41. He looks at the landscape of the PGA Tour and recognizes Phil Mickelson turning 40 this year. He also sees a lot of faces he doesn’t know, finding himself staring at the stitching on golf bags to figure out who some of these guys are.
Playing a practice round Tuesday with Bob Estes, they began talking about generation changes in 10 years. He has been through two of those cycles now.
Even so, Els is as optimistic about the year as everyone else, from 21-year-old Rickie Fowler to 50-year-old Tom Lehman.
“When you have a love of the game, you still want to achieve things,” Els said. “The first week is still quite exciting. You look around this week at who might be doing what for the future of the tour. Players like myself, Retief … Phil will be 40 this year. It’s like the sand in the hourglass is starting to run out. And we’d like to prove to everyone we still belong.”
Also in the field is John Daly, who has lost about 100 pounds over the past nine months through lap-band surgery. Daly is playing on a sponsor’s exemption, about the only way he can get into tournaments except those who recognize his status as a past champion on tour or a two-time major champion.
Daly played behind Els at the British Open, and the Big Easy hardly recognized him except for the loud pants. Daly is down to 190 pounds now, and Els might look at him the same way as some of the other rookies he doesn’t know.
He wouldn’t be alone.
Daly agreed to host the pro-am party Tuesday night at a Honolulu hotel, along with Rich Beem, and he was late for a good reason. The official at the door didn’t know who he was.
“They wouldn’t let me in,” he said. “If I weighed 300 pounds and had four chins, I’d have no problem getting in. No one recognized me.”
Indeed, the two-time major champion has a new look for the new season.
The question is whether he has a new game.
“I feel a tremendous amount of pressure, not from my sponsors, but from myself,” said Daly, whose only status comes from being a past champion. “My goal is to get my card. If I make enough money, fine. If I win, fine. Just so I can finally set up 2011 with a schedule.”