ORLANDO, Fla. – 1998 called, it wants its leaderboard back.
Or so it seemed at an Arnold Palmer Invitational that felt eerily similar to the version played a dozen years ago, complete with the same champion (Ernie Els), same supporting cast (Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie), host (Palmer) and, after a series of timely nip/tucks, a strangely similar golf course.
But then the last month has had a “Florida Swing Time Machine” feel to it starting with Els’ victory at Doral, Furyk’s drought-ender at the Transitions Champion and, finally, a not-so-picture-perfect victory lap for the Big Easy at Bay Hill.
“Looking back this is good,” said Els, who stumbled badly on Sunday before a weather delay gave him a reprieve. “To struggle and battle through was good. I’ve not done that in a while.”
Instead, the South African learned a lesson in less-than-perfect golf, one-putting three of his final four holes from 7 (No. 15), 6 ½ (16) and 8 (18) feet on Monday to par his way in and hold off Kevin Na (69) and Edoardo Molinari (69) for a two-stroke victory.
“The last 20 hours I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to finish this thing,” said Els, who carded a disjointed 71 for an 11-under 277 total and his second victory in as many starts.
It is curious, however, that Els – renowned his entire career for his silky swing – would collect Tour tilt No. 18 courtesy a dogged short game. Curious, that is, to everyone except Butch Harmon, the swing guru who was credited with tweaking Els’ game into winning form early in the week at Doral.
“It was simple stuff, just pay attention to ball position, alignment, posture. Just basic stuff,” said Harmon, who spoke with Els briefly on Thursday at Bay Hill. “Confidence is huge for all of them. You don’t have to be so aggressive. Don’t have to hit it to 4 feet every hole. You could tell he felt good about himself because he started seeing the ball go into the hole.”
For 21 hours the only thing Els had in his head was the vision of things going sideways after he was pulled from the golf course on Sunday after hitting from a fairway bunker and into a water hazard (No. 13) and into a poor lie (No. 14).
In many ways the last 22 hours was a metaphor for the last 22 months. Before his masterpiece at Doral Els’ last victory was the 2008 Honda Classic. Throughout that slump a knee injury made the game, and practice, difficult and, more importantly, revelations that his son, Ben, had been diagnosed with autism made his pursuit of swing perfection seem trivial.
But 2010 brought changes to the Els’ household, most notably a reduced schedule and a passion for golf that had been missing. Solid finishes in Hawaii, San Diego and Los Angeles were precursors to the WGC-CA Championship and Charl Schwartzel, the young South African who took Els to the wire at Doral, had a front-row seat.
“I could see he was close to winning again. I didn’t expect it to be that quick, but the signs were there,” said Schwartzel, a house guest of Els’ before and after his victory at Doral. “I could see every day he was getting better and better.”
The next stop for Els will be Augusta National, where he was headed Tuesday morning for a practice round and where he will be on a short list of favorites.
Phil Mickelson can’t say the same thing. Six events into 2010 Lefty is “close” but still searching for his first victory. The good news: the last time Mickelson went this deep into a season without a title was 2006, when he got off the schneid with the Georgia double – back-to-back victories at the BellSouth Classic and Masters.
Davis Love III, however, was pulling pages from Lefty’s high-wire playbook from the outset at Bay Hill, posting just 12 pars through his first 36 holes and playing his opening nine on Friday in 3 under . . . without a par.
“It was entertaining,” said Love, who struggled on the weekend (74-74) and faded to 14th. “I don't know if you've seen Daniel Chopra do a scorecard but he's got one of those pens with four different colors and I had all kind of colors all over my scorecard. It was very pretty.”
With apologies to Els, there wasn’t much about the week that was pretty.
Ben Curtis, one shot back to start the final round, seemed to run out of steam on Sunday and Monday, closing with 74. Ditto for Furyk, who was one shot better (73) fresh from his first Tour title since 2007. While Chris Couch – who said he’d been passed over for a sponsor exemption into Arnie’s event 18 times, which prompts the question: why didn’t he stop asking at 12? – hit his approach into the 18th on Friday off the rocks and his chance to secure his Tour card on Sunday playing Nos. 11-14 in 3 over to tie for fourth place.
Even Na’s spirited closing challenge was best viewed without pictures, with missed fairways at two of his last four holes and a bogey at the last to give Els a two-shot cushion.
But then if you turn back the clock to Els’ Bay Hill victory 12 years ago that turn wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes. Els began the final round six clear of the field, double bogeyed his second hole and played his last five holes in 1 over.
By comparison, the 2010 take was textbook, and, if one cares to study the tea leaves, a favorable sign of things to come.
It is interesting, if not purely coincidental, that Els’ resurgence dovetails neatly with Tiger Woods’ self-imposed hiatus. Of all of Woods’ on-course marks Els has suffered the most. In 2000, he was a PGA Championship away from the runner-up slam and was gutted in 1998 when Woods rallied from eight-strokes back at the Johnnie Walker Classic.
“It feels like an eternity ago. I was slimmer back then,” Els smiled when asked about his last Bay Hill triumph.
For all the similarities this time just seemed different. Els just seems different.