PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – If Ernie Els keeps playing this well, he may have a big problem.
If he keeps turning back the clock at the Honda Classic, he may find himself with a lot more work on his hands when he captains the Internationals against the Americans at Royal Melbourne in Australia.
If Els finishes what he started Thursday at PGA National, he may find a bunch of players who idolized him at his door, lobbying for him to tee it up with Tiger Woods as dueling playing captains.
Hey, if Els can win his 20th PGA Tour title this week, why not?
Els didn’t look like a guy slogging toward his 50th birthday in the first round. He looked like the guy so many of these international players grew up admiring.
He looked as good as he was when he won the Honda Classic in ’08.
“Oh my God, I’ve looked up to him,” Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas.
Vegas could have meant that literally. Off to his own hot start, Vegas kept seeing Els climbing the leaderboard with him.
“You feel like you had to push harder to keep up with him,” Vegas said.
Vegas took the early lead with a 6-under-par 64. Els shot 66.
“Ernie played fantastic,” fellow South African Charl Schwartzel said after opening with a 67. “With the success he’s had at Royal Melbourne, he can pick himself, the way he’s playing.”
OK, OK, it’s just one round. It’s easy to get carried away. Nobody knows that better than Els, but while he continues to insist he is not interested in being a playing captain, there’s a gleam in his eye when he talks about Royal Melbourne.
“I have won there three times, and I do have the course record there,” Els said as he walked to his car after the round.
“Maybe if I magically find a lot of form, if I win another major, if I can win three more times, yeah, absolutely I’ll do it,” Els says with a laugh.
Maybe if his putting stroke, a source of frustration as he has aged, continues to look as solid as it did on Thursday . . .
But Els quickly catches himself.
“It’s just not in the equation,” he said. “There’s so much to do, especially on my side of the captaincy. Tiger could be a little bit more comfortable doing it. He’s got a team of guys who have played Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups and who have been around it for many years.
“I can see doing it from their point of view, but, from my point of view, I have a lot of work to do. I have to educate the guys around the golf course, how it sets up, how to play it. There’s a lot of things on my mind. It would be a difficult decision.”
Yeah, but if he keeps outplaying the Internationals he is supposed to be scouting . . .
Els was paired in the first round with Adam Scott and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, two players expected to make his team. Els put up a score six shots better than Scott in the first round, and nine better than Aphibarnrat.
Els was asked what reaching 20 PGA Tour wins would mean to him.
“It's late in my career, but I'll take any win now,” he said. “I'm not thinking about it. I'm just thinking about tomorrow's round and so forth.
“But it would be magic.”