AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Ernie Els shook hands with fans between holes, and stopped to take a picture with one on his way up the 17th fairway. He even posed with a “Flat Stanley” as he made his way to the putting green.
Don’t make too big a deal of it, but the Big Easy is feeling mighty at ease at this Masters.
“I don’t want to get too overconfident,” Els said Wednesday at the Par-3 tournament. “But at least I’ve brought a little game here.”
That’s a bit of an understatement.
The three-time major champion comes to Augusta National playing his best golf in years. He ended a two-year drought at the World Golf Championship at Doral, then became the tour’s only double winner two weeks later with a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was the first time Els had won back-to-back tournaments in seven years.
He has four top-10 finishes in his eight PGA Tour starts this year, and has climbed to eighth in the world rankings, up nine spots from where he finished last season.
“I haven’t been in this kind of form coming in here for many years,” Els said.
Not that it’s drawn much notice. Els, Steve Stricker, Anthony Kim – no one is getting anything more than a cursory glance with Tiger Woods playing his first tournament since the shocking sex scandal that turned the world’s most famous athlete into tabloid fodder. Even defending Masters champion Angel Cabrera was able to walk by a group of reporters without being stopped Tuesday. They were all too busy keeping an eye out for Mark O’Meara, Woods’ playing partner Tuesday and Wednesday.
“People are not going to be talking about who’s in form until probably Thursday morning when we start the event,” Els, who didn’t make the cut for the formal pre-tournament interviews, said after his win at Bay Hill. “It’s going to be all about Tiger and him coming back and everything. So I think we will all be sideshows until Thursday morning. And I think we’re fine with that. Everybody is fine with that.”
It might be the best thing for Els, actually.
The South African is a two-time winner at the U.S. Open (1994 and 1997), and he won the 2002 British Open at Muirfield. But it was the Masters that he stayed up late to watch as a youngster in South Africa, and it’s the tournament closest to Els’ heart.
And it’s also the one that has broken it – repeatedly.
He was runner-up to Vijay Singh in 2000 because he couldn’t get a putt to drop over his last three holes. After top-10 finishes the next three years, he thought 2004 was finally going to be his year. Seemed it, too, when he took a two-stroke lead on Phil Mickelson with an eagle – his second of the day – on the par-5 13th.
But he two-putted for a par on 17 and drove into a bunker so deep on 18 he couldn’t even see the flag, then had to wait out Mickelson in hopes of a playoff. Unable to watch, he munched on an apple and then headed to the putting green.
He didn’t see Mickelson make the 18-foot birdie putt that gave him his green jacket, but he heard the raucous cheers. Els tossed his putter aside and quietly walked away.
“It’s disappointing,” he said then. “I’ve got to take stock after this.”
In the years that followed, there were some who wondered if he would recover. Though he went on to win the Memorial in 2004, it was one of only three victories until this year. His slump between the 2008 Honda Classic and Doral was the longest of his career.
Meanwhile at the Masters, he hasn’t made the cut the last three years.
“It’s always in my head this time of the year,” Els said at Bay Hill. “You try and downplay it, but you do think about it.”
Maybe that’s why he got testy when approached after Wednesday’s practice round.
“I just feel good,” Els said. “Give me a break. What can I tell you?”
Els had been decidedly relaxed during the round, laughing and joking with fellow South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, and Australia’s Marc Leishman. He tipped his cap when fans yelled out, “This is the year!” and “Win this thing, Ernie. Come on!” And when a fan waiting in the crosswalk on the 17th fairway jokingly asked if he could get a picture, Els obliged.
“He was pretty low-key,” Leishman said, “talking about anything but golf.”
But his friends know the real score – for Els, it’s all about golf.
“He’s hitting it pretty good,” Leishman said. “He’ll be hard to beat.”