PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida (AP) — Ernie Els grades his level of personal confidence on a scale of 10. Entering the Dubai Desert Classic this month, he says it was a nine. Now, it’s a seven.
The hit is an easy one to explain.
Blowing a four-shot lead to Tiger Woods in the final round – which happened in Dubai – isn’t a good thing for anyone’s psyche, even a former world No. 1 like Els. And last week, in his 2008 debut in the U.S., he lasted only 13 holes in the Accenture Match Play, getting bounced in the first round.
“Wasn’t the best warm-up for my U.S. campaign,” said Els, the world’s No. 4 player.
So now he’s in the Honda Classic field for the first time since 1999, hoping the Florida swing gives him the shot of confidence he desperately wants. The tournament starts on Thursday at PGA National’s Champion Course, a tricky Jack Nicklaus track.
“Dubai, I had a great opportunity to win and finish the tournament there, but I came up short,” Els said. “And obviously, last week wasn’t great, but I’m not reading too much into that one. I’m really looking forward to having a strong four-week stretch in Florida, work on my game and see where we can go.”
Els hasn’t won on the U.S. PGA Tour since 2004, a drought that has reached 47 tournaments.
At the end of 2006, Els revealed what he called a three-year plan to contend for more major championships and ultimately challenge Woods for the world’s No. 1 ranking. He was third at last year’s U.S. PGA Championship and tied for fourth at the British Open, but hasn’t exactly dented Woods’ grasp on the top spot.
And it’s starting to wear on Els a bit.
“I need a win,” Els said. “I need to, at least, have two or three events really up there, really feeling the heat and knowing that you can pull off the shots under pressure. I need a couple of wins like that.”
Dubai would have certainly classified as one of those.
His collapse there was epic. Naturally, it came against Woods.
After all, it was Woods who rallied from eight shots down to beat Els at the Johnnie Walker in 1998. And it was Woods who had a birdie-birdie finish to get into a playoff at Dubai two years ago, when he beat Els in a playoff.
“When he’s out there, he’s in contention,” Els said. “You know he’s not getting away and you know he’s not going to make too many mistakes. So it puts added pressure on yourself and sometimes drives you into things that you don’t normally do.”
Like, for example, trying to hit 5-wood over the water and go for the 18th green at Dubai in two. Laying up there, followed by a good chip, probably would have gotten Els in a playoff.
But since it was Woods, Els went for the spectacular. He got a splash.
“I had a one in 10 chance of hitting the perfect shot,” Els said.
Fortunately for Els, Woods isn’t here this week. But this field is strong with Justin Rose (No. 7), Sergio Garcia (No. 13) and U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera (No. 14) in the mix, along with defending champion Mark Wilson and the three players he beat in last year’s playoff – Boo Weekley, Camilo Villegas and Jose Coceres.
“To me, it’s in the top four tournaments on the tour,” said Robert Allenby, who finished last year’s Honda at 4 under, one shot out of the playoff. “Obviously, you have your majors and then we have other tournaments, and this is one of those other tournaments that ranks right up there.”
Els hopes it can be the tournament that can vault him right up there again, too.
His plan is for his game to peak at Augusta National in April for the Masters, where he was second in 2000 (to Vijay Singh) and 2004 (to Phil Mickelson).
He believes it’s doable, and a win in Florida would send that Els confidence meter skyrocketing again.
“It’s not like I’m playing terrible golf,” Els said. “The results are not quite there. I don’t want to say it’s tougher to get your confidence back, but it’s quite a journey. I’m enjoying the challenge at the moment. I’m enjoying practicing and really spending a lot of time on my swing and technical part of my game.”