For once The Big Easy made it look hard.
“I couldn’t get the mistakes out of my head,” Ernie Els confessed about his golf shots just prior to the rain delay Sunday at Arnold Palmer’s tournament. “I basically let 15 guys back into the tournament with the mistakes I made on 13 and 14 yesterday, and I’ve got to learn from that.”
He did not sleep well Sunday night. He kept waking up, watching the rain.
“I wasn’t the Big Easy last night,” he said.
Once play resumed at noon on Monday, he had not regained the form that he showed for 66 holes.
“I missed my second shot on 15, left, and hit a very mediocre pitch shot,” he explained. But he made par there.
That was followed by a tee shot to the right at the par five 16th , which he was not able to birdie. Meanwhile, his closest competitor, Kevin Na, did birdie the 16th to pull within one of Els.
“At 17, I thought I hit the shot of the tournament,” he added. “I went right at it with a 4-iron and it came up short.” It was another plugged lie, about nine yards from the hole.
“I hit a very good shot out of there, and made an even better putt.” The putt was two inches longer than Els’ height of six-three.
When he reached the 18th tee, Els could see Na in the right rough preparing to hit. After the Els’ group hit tee shots and began walking down the fairway, he heard moans at the 18th green, signifying that Na had missed a putt for par. That gave Els a two-shot cushion while playing the final hole.
“It was a hard struggle today,” he said. “If I can say it—I really earned this one.”
Els has had hot streaks before, winning the 1997 US Open and then the Buick Classic the next week. In 2003 he won the Mercedes Championship followed by the Sony Open and this year he won the CA Championship and then—with a week off—emerged victorious at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“It’s an amazing feeling, really,” Els said about the two victories so close together, particularly after his dry stretch. It is slightly reminiscent of the 1992 winter that Fred Couples experienced prior to his Maters victory.
“It (golf) can be one of the toughest games, cruelest games in the world, and then you sit here, it’s one on the nicest games. I would have been very despondent after this if I didn’t get the ball up and down on 16, 17, 18.”
In one of the more amazing descriptions of pre-shot swing thoughts, Els admitted that on the 18th tee, he was thinking about the 18th tee shot at Augusta National.
“I had to hit a little fade, and I opened up my body nicely and hit a perfect fade down there,” he said. “There’s a ton of little games you play with yourself.”
During the post round interview, he said that he knew some reporters had written him off a few years ago, and he feels the two victories in March should change that.
“It just shows you that I have a little bit of fight left,” he concluded
What it also shows is that the hours of practicing that his wife Liezl said he had been doing at home to get his game where he wanted are now paying dividends.
While the Arnold Palmer Invitational may not have been a pretty victory for Els, the fact that he had to fight for it—battle, scrape and make putts—may be the catalyst to winning yet another major or two down the road.
He proved he could come back from bad shots and win, and that’s what it takes in major championships.
Certainly, Els has to be a favorite headed into Houston. He hopes to be in contention at Augusta National and has made no secret of the fact that he wants a victory there.
At the Bay Hill awards ceremony, Els said that while he was pleased about the victory, he would like to change the color of the blue blazer they had given him to green. Everyone there knew exactly what he meant, including the tournament host, Arnold Palmer.