Ernie Els wrote his name in golf's record books almost 10 years ago. You may not remember what record he set, since his three consecutive runner-up finishes in majors were dwarfed by something Âbigger—the dawn of the Tiger Woods era. In 2000, when Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 shots and the British Open by eight en route to taking four straight majors—the Tiger Slam—Els was a frustrated and defeated No. 2 on both occasions. "Is he going to play like this for the next 10 years?" Els asked after his defeat at the Old Course. "In a way it's incredible to watch a guy play so much better than the rest of the world. I might have to get used to it, I guess. I'm probably living in an era of the next great player."
Els has been proved prescient. Tiger hasn't gone away, but neither has Els. Now 40, he's still quick with that familiar wide smile and still aptly known as the Big Easy. What he proved last week at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando was that he is also persistent.
It has been the Tiger decade, for sure, and next week will be Tiger's Masters. But the first major of 2010 won't be all Tiger all the time. Els broadened the Masters conversation by surviving a rain-delayed Monday finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to claim his second straight victory with a final-round 71 for an 11-under 277. Els also won two weeks earlier, at Doral, for his first victory in more than two years. In a PGA Tour season that had yet to see anyone put together a run of extended good play in Tiger's absence, Els has emerged.
"I don't know if that changes a whole lot," says Tour veteran Paul Goydos, the 1996 Bay Hill champion. "If someone told me Ernie Els had a chance to win the Masters, well, the last time that wasn't the case would be what, 1988 or '93 or something?"
This was going to be a Masters without an obvious favorite. Woods stayed out of sight and out of golf for five months. How can an invisible man be the guy to beat? Phil Mickelson's hot finish to the 2009 season raised expectations, but to this point he hasn't been a factor. Mickelson started the week by shooting a 58 in a practice round at the Plantation Golf Club in La Quinta, Calif., and played his way into contention through two rounds at Arnie's event. Then he shot rounds of 75 and 77 on the weekend to finish 30th.
That leaves Els, who after picking up the 17th and 18th wins of his career, is a marquee name with a hot-again game. Last week was one of highlights for Els, but the most telling may have come during the second round. Els's drive at the 6th, a par-5 that curls around a pond, rolled into the water. Els was in no mood for this result, as he had just three-putted the 5th hole for bogey. Because his ball was sitting halfway out of the water, Els removed his shoes and socks, took a stance in the hazard and punched his ball back into play and salvaged par. "I was one slip away from going snorkeling," Els said later, but the performance was a serious combination of mental toughness, shotmaking and clutch putting that conjured the Els of old. That gutty par set up a run of six birdies later in the round that propelled Els to a 69 and a four-way tie for the lead.
On Sunday his advantage reached five strokes, but then he dunked a shot into the water at 13 and made double bogey, which he followed with a bogey at the par-3 14th. When an approaching storm halted play moments later, it might have been a good break. With a night to regroup, Els came out and parred his way in for the victory. Maybe two wins in a row can erase the memory of those three seconds.