Ernie Els back in contention

By Randall MellSeptember 3, 2009, 4:00 pm
DeutscheBank Logo 2007NORTON, Mass. –  Ernie Els is fighting his way back.

After wandering to the game’s fringe, among the extras on golf’s grandest stages, he’s working his way back to the place we’re accustomed to seeing him.

He’s back on leaderboards, back in contention, back in position to win.

Els’ late summer rise makes him one of the favorites to win the Deutsche Bank Championship and a serious contender to win the FedEx Cup playoffs.

“It’s been coming,” Els said Thursday before his pro-am round. “I still haven’t won this year. I’d love to win a tournament before the end of the year. But at least I’m moving in the right direction.”
Ernie Els at The Barclays
Ernie Els is coming off a tie for second at last week's Barclays at Liberty National. (Getty Images)

Els won the Honda Classic last year, his first PGA Tour title in almost four seasons, but he never rode the momentum back to the game’s highest ranks. He has 44 international titles, 16 PGA Tour victories and three major championship titles, but that resume was beginning to look like a finished work with his game fading. The former No. 1 player in the world had fallen all the way to No. 26 this summer.

“The last couple of years, I haven’t really played to my potential, to where I want to play,” Els said. “I got a win last year, early, and then I really didn’t hit form at all. This year, I started slowly and now I’m starting to come around a little bit. So it’s been kind of an awkward couple of years. I just want to play good. I want to play better. I don’t want to be struggling like I did. There’s no worse feeling in the world to play at a certain level and then drop off, knowing you can do a lot better. It’s quite frustrating.”

Els turns 40 on Oct. 17. That imminent birthday is a wake-up call. Els’ Honda Classic title last season is his only PGA Tour title since 2005.

Els is coming off a tie for second in last week's opening to the FedEx Cup playoffs, The Barclays at Liberty National. That came on the heels of his run at the PGA Championship, where he tied for sixth. Els has finished tied for eighth or better in four of his last six starts.

“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I’ve had a couple of good weeks now,” Els said. “A win is really on my radar. To do it against a field like we have here this week, and in the FedEx Cup race, that would be a great confidence boost.”

What happened to the Big Easy?

There’s been speculation that Tiger Woods wore him out. Els has finished second to Woods seven times, more than anyone else on the PGA Tour. The frustrations led to a belief that Woods had somehow broken Els.

“People who say that are just making stuff up,” said sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who works with Els. “Ernie’s in a really good place right now. He’s just seeing it, hitting it and staying out of his own way. He’s really believing in himself. You can see it.”

Els’ fade can be traced back to a knee injury, a balky putting stroke and a new life’s work that's consuming more of his time.

“My putting stats have been awful all year, so it’s nice to make some putts,” Els said of his run at The Barclays.

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. He didn’t rebound nearly as quickly as Tiger Woods did from his knee surgery last year.

Woods said Els did not put in the hard work needed to come back as quickly as he did.

“It takes time,” Woods said. “Ernie is not a big worker physically, and that’s one of the things that you have to do with an ACL repair. You’ve got to really do a lot of work. I feel pretty good with what I’ve done, and I think Ernie, he could have worked a little bit harder.

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Player: Ernie Els
  • Event: Deutsche Bank Championship
  • Tour: PGA Tour
“But Ernie travels all around the world, more than any other golfer. He plays all over the place, it’s harder for him.”

Els concedes he returned too quickly from surgery, going back to a world travel schedule that was too much too soon.

Through it all, Els’ velvet putting stroke left him, but that’s also starting to come back.

“We all know he’s got the talent,” Woods said. “It’s just a matter of him getting the confidence.”

Another factor is how Els’ heart has been tugged by matters more important than golf the last two seasons.

Quietly, Els has poured himself into making life better for his son, Ben, and other autistic children like him.

After winning the Honda Classic last year, Els used the platform to bolster his efforts to find a cure for autism. It was the week after the victory that Els first revealed that his then 5-year-old son had autism. Els became a spokesman for Autism Speaks. Shortly after, he moved his family to The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., in great measure to get him better care.

“Going public with Ben was a big deal,” Els said. “I didn’t really realize it was going to be that big a deal, and I’ve really thrown new energy into this new project that we’re busy with. We want to build a nice center for autistic kids down there, basically a school in Florida.”

Els reports progress is terrific on the project, that his knee is completely healthy and that his putter is finally cooperating.

“Things are coming around nicely,” Els said.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”