It was rather appropriate for Ernie Els, golf’s Big Easy, that it should be in New Orleans, the city they call the Big Easy, that the big, blond South African should announce to the golf world that he is back as a serious contender at the highest level.
Els may have lost in a play-off to American Jason Dufner in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on Sunday, but the quality of his golf – and especially his putting, which has been his bugbear for so long – was of the highest order. He ended tied second in putting for the week, a vast improvement on his recent work on the greens. The 42-year-old former world No1 had rounds of 66, 68, 68 and 67 to tie Dufner at the top of the leaderboard on 19-under-par 269, before losing to the American’s birdie at the second hole of sudden-death.
Importantly for Els, he climbs from 63rd in the world rankings to 40th – well inside the top 50 which means he is now exempt for next month’s US Open. It was being outside the top 50 that cost Els a spot in last month’s Masters, the first time he has missed Augusta in 19 years. That, clearly, hurt the big man and doubled his determination to once again prove to himself and the world that he still deserves to be teeing up and contending in the Majors.
“Obviously it felt great to play four nice rounds in the 60s and hit the ball so well,” Els wrote on his website on Monday. “Of course I’m also a little disappointed, especially as I had a putt to win the tournament (on the first play-off hole) and winning is what it’s all about for me. But overall I’m very pleased with the way I played. I’m pleased for Jason as well. He’s a great guy with a really sound golf game. And he has a bit more cash to spend on his honeymoon now! (Dufner will marry Amanda Bond on Saturday).
“I was chatting to my caddie Ricci Roberts on Sunday morning and we had it in mind to try to get to 20-under par. That’s what we thought might be the winning score. It would take some good golf to get there but I liked my chances. Making eagle on the 7th didn’t do any harm, and by then we’d caught Jason at the top although there was a lot of golf still to play.
“On the 10th tee I said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s just play a strong back nine and see what happens’. Looking back, if I were being super-critical I’d say I was a little disappointed in my ball striking on the back nine and I didn’t get as many chances for birdies as I’d have liked. But I made some crucial par putts and that will be good for my mindset going forward this season.”
“On the first play-off hole I hit a sweet 5-wood in there and if it had carried just another two yards it would have been perfect. As it was, it finished in the bunker. I hit a good bunker shot and gave myself a chance. I didn’t hit a great putt, though. I thought it’d hold its line better than it did. Anyway, on the second play-off hole I didn’t hit a great drive and it finished in a little pot bunkers. I was fortunate to be able to get it down the fairway as far as I did but from there I didn’t make birdie and, all credit to Jason, he did.
“So, mixed feelings I guess. I played four good rounds of golf, 19-under par for 72 holes, and a bogey-free final round. That’s a lot of positives to take away from the week. The only negative is having a putt to win and missing it. At least I’m doing good things and getting myself in a position to win. That’s a big step up from last year.”
Els has a week off with his family and will be back in action in next week’s Players Championship. – The Star