HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Ernie Els smiled after his 6-under 65 to open the Verizon Heritage. He wasn’t in front, but he wasn’t out of it either, as he’s been so often at tournaments the past few seasons.
Els was two shots behind leader Jerry Kelly, who began with an 8-under 63 at Harbour Town Golf Links on Thursday. And the South African was glad to make a mark so early in a PGA Tour event.
“Just to start off well and feel like I’m in the tournament was a nice feeling,” Els said.
That seems like an odd stance from a three-time major winner who’s currently ranked fifth in the world. But the “Big Easy” has had his troubles since winning three times on tour in 2004.
“I haven’t won on U.S. soil for quite a few years now,” Els said. “But I’d love to win, and I’d like to win a couple, not just one.”
Els sustained a knee injury midway through the following season. He took the rest of the year off after doctors repaired his ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. He played 18 events in 2006, but didn’t finish higher than third.
Els has played five times this year. He got off to a promising start, tying for third at the Nissan Open in February. Since then, he hasn’t done better than a tie for 11th at the WGC-CA Championship last month. Els missed the cut at the Masters a week ago for just the second time in 14 trips to Augusta National.
So Els was pleased to post his lowest round of the season, particularly after his Masters’ flop.
“Mentally, I wasn’t there” at Augusta, Els said. “Needless to say, my game broke down.”
He kept things together at Harbour Town. He started birdie-eagle. By the time he knocked in a sandshot for birdie on the par-3 17th, Els was two shots behind.
“I didn’t want to walk around going through the motions out here this week,” Els said. “I want to try and have a chance on Sunday. So this was a good start.”
Not quite as good as Kelly’s.
Kelly, who finished three strokes behind winner Zach Johnson at the Masters, stood at 9-under par with three holes left, flirting to break 60. His run ended, though, on his next-to-last hole, the eighth, when his approach found a bunker and he could not save par from the sand.
Kelly, known for his demonstrative style, has worked to channel his emotions into more consistent play. He says he’s “more comfortable from the very first shot to the last shot, instead of getting real excited at the start with all my adrenaline pumping and then having something happen to bring me into focus.”
In a rare Harbour Town appearance from a Masters winner, Johnson shot a so-so 70, seven shots off the lead. But the 31-year-old Iowan probably has a good excuse after his whirlwind week of TV guest spots and celebrations. His round included a four-putt double bogey 6 on the sixth hole.
“I miss. I miss. I miss. I make,” said Johnson, parroting Seve Ballesteros’ famous explanation for his Augusta four-putt nearly two decades ago.
“Obviously that was just a complete mental lapse. So, whatever.”
Els didn’t have many mental errors during his round, the lone bogey coming on the eighth hole.
It’s not unusual for Els to excel at Harbour Town. He’s had six top 10s in his eight previous appearances and was a threat to win here at least three times before last-round flubs – he famously drove out of bounds on the 70th hole in 2003 to squander a two-stroke lead – cost him.
Then such defeats were met with an Els’ wide grin and a “wait-till-next-week” mentality. The road back to his old form has been difficult at times. “I haven’t really been where I think I should be, and at times, I’ve been so frustrated that I really didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he said.
“I just want to feel that the work I put in, I want to start seeing the benefits,” Els continued. “Obviously, that happened today. It was a nice benefit.”