Time to reflect: Els' Open win 'really setting in'

By Doug FergusonAugust 6, 2012, 3:11 pm

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Ernie Els returns to Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship as a major champion, the same status he carried the last time he was there.

He was the U.S. Open winner in 1997, earning his second major at age 27. He came here that fall to represent South Africa in the World Cup. The rest of the week was a blur. He vaguely remembers The Ocean Course, only that it was hard.

''I think they designed that course for match play,'' he said with a grin.

So much has transpired between then and now. That '97 U.S. Open win came right after 21-year-old Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 shots. Golf looked like it might have a rivalry to last a generation, only it didn't pan out that way.

Els was runner-up in three consecutive majors in 2000, two of them to Woods by a combined 23 shots. The Big Easy finally added another major in 2002 at the British Open, and he had a chance to win all of them in 2004 in a most empty season.

Right when it looked as though his best was behind him, or that he had too many demons from so many close calls, he won the British Open last month in a most shocking manner. Els didn't realize how fortunate he was until he received DVDs of his win at Royal Lytham & St Annes. He watched the final hour, when Adam Scott made bogey on the last four holes and lost a four-shot lead.

Els flew home to London that night after the Open. Then, he was off to Canada to live up to a sponsor's obligation. He missed the cut in Canada, threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, headed to Firestone for a World Golf Championship and didn't break par until Saturday.

He was all smiles that day, not so much because of his 68, but because of the realization that, yes, he was the Open champion.

''I can't tell you how special it is,'' Els said. ''It's just hit me now. I've been reading up on what you guys have been writing, but it's been two weeks. Last week was a joke. The Canadians ran me around like you can't believe. But now, I'm breathing again. It's really setting in.''

The replay he watched carried some bittersweet moments, mainly for Scott.

''I did play some good golf,'' said Els, who had a 32 on the back nine. ''I didn't make any mistakes on the back nine. But Scotty's lipout on 16, that thing should have been in. That 17th hole, there's no way you can hit it left. And the tee shot on 18. I was very fortunate.''

Such is golf, and Els knows it.

He can think back to 1995 at Riviera in the PGA Championship, which was his to win until he stumbled in the final round. Steve Elkington wound up winning in a playoff over Montgomerie. Does Elkington realize how fortunate he was to win?

Els offered that easy smile.

''He's Australian,'' he said. ''And Scotty's my buddy.''

Then he paused, adding softly, ''I am very glad to have that jug.''

Not many would have imagined at the start of the year that Els would go to the PGA Championship as a major champion again. He is 42 and has struggled mightily with his emotions and his putting over the past several years. The low point was not qualifying for the Masters for the first time in nearly two decades.

Darren Clarke, in his 20th time playing the Open last year, won at Royal St. George's when he was 42, and it appears he has been celebrating ever since.

Els has a different outlook.

''It just shows you, man, you've got to keep going,'' he said. ''Just keep going. You never know. You always have that belief. All the (stuff) that came my way ... are you going to be that lucky again? This game can throw you some bones.''

Imagine the South African walking through the door of his London home, holding that precious claret jug. It was rare for his wife, Leizl, to miss a major. She keeps a book of all his majors, making sketches of each hole and charting every shot of her husband and those playing with him that day.

That she was not at Lytham was not an accident.

His family stayed in Skibo Castle during the Scottish Open, and then Els sent them home. He knew deep down he was getting close, especially after his tie for ninth in the U.S. Open. He wanted to treat the British Open like a work week, as it was when he was just starting his career. He went to the golf course and worked. He went to the hotel to sleep. It was all business.

''Tony Jacklin stayed in that hotel when he won in 1969 - I was born in 1969,'' Els said, grinning at the coincidence.

His family will be with him at Kiawah, the final major of the year before the kids are back in school. But he might consider going alone to more majors because he believes more majors are in his future. There is more purpose than he has had in years.

One night at dinner about a month before the Open, he decided to stop drinking. Els doesn't remember the night, and when pressed for the motive behind it, he waved his hand and said, ''Accch,'' a guttural sound in Afrikaans to suggest it was no big deal or not worth discussing.

''I just didn't feel like anymore,'' he said. ''I'm probably going to give it another three months now. I feel really into what I'm doing.''

He still put some claret in that silver jug the night he won the Open.

Now, however, it's back to work.

''I'm feeling like it's a new beginning,'' he said. ''Nick Faldo, I had a little chat with him on the range. I really do feel I can win another couple of majors. I really do. He smiles at me, giving me that grin like, 'Keep dreaming.' But I believe there are plenty to come. I'm still not close to what I can be.''

Perhaps two more majors, and he will have as many as Faldo.

''I'm not going to rub anybody's nose in it,'' said Els, sounding very much like a man at peace with himself. ''I just want to play golf. (Forget) the rest.''

And with that, he turned and walked away.

''Cheers, boys.''

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”