HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — The Big Easy is making it look, well, easy again.
Ernie Els showed the form that won him three major titles — and had gone missing for most of the past two seasons — on Friday in the Verizon Heritage, shooting his second straight 6-under 65 to take a three-stroke lead over Jerry Kelly.
“I haven’t been quite consistent at this level,” Els said. “But there’s been glimpses of good play. It’s nice to be there again.”
Els still ranks fifth in the world, but has struggled since surgery to repair a ruptured knee ligament in 2005. He hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in nearly three years and flamed out at the Masters last week, missing the cut at a major for the first time since the 1999 PGA Championship.
Now, the 37-year-old South African is back to his usual laid-back style.
“This week, I’ve tried to play the way I can play, and if I’m going to make a mistake, then I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world,” he said.
Els hasn’t made too many mistakes so far. He’s had only one bogey in the first two rounds. He held his ground starting on the more difficult back nine before he pounced on the birdie-rich front side with a stretch of four in five holes.
By the time he tapped in for his final birdie on No. 9, Els was five shots in front of the field — and a stroke off the tournament’s 36-hole scoring mark set by Jack Nicklaus in 1975 and matched by Phil Mickelson in 2002.
Els, though, knows better than most how treacherous Harbour Town can be.
He’s had six top-10 finishes in eight previous appearances and looked like a sure winner at least twice.
The biggest gaffe came four years ago. Els carried a two-stroke lead into the tournament’s 70th hole, then inexplicably tagged his drive out of bounds for a double-bogey 6. He went bogeyed the final two holes to fall from a playoff.
In 2000, Els held a five-stroke lead over Stewart Cink with 12 holes to go. But played 5-over golf the rest of the way to fall to third.
“Sure, I’ve had my chances here in the past,” Els said. “As I’ve said before, you know, that’s past history. I want to just try and control the present.”
Right now, Els looks as smooth as ever. Does he let his mind wander to Sunday evening and hearing the luxury flotilla off Calibogue Sound serenade him with horn blasts reserved for Harbour Town’s champion?
“It’s going to be difficult to shoot four 65s, let me tell you that,” said Els, grinning widely. “If it happens, it happens.”
The animated Kelly, dealing with a spring cold, bogeyed two of his first four holes. He fought back to 10 under, two behind Els, before closing with a bogey on No. 18.
“It was a 75 turned into a 70,” Kelly said. “I guess I can be pretty pleased with that.”
Zach Johnson continued his Masters’ victory tour, once again celebrated by Harbour Town crowds. Johnson’s game picked up some, too, with a 68 that moved him to 4 under.
Johnson is the first Masters winner to play the Verizon Heritage since Vijay Singh in 2000. And last week’s success was never far away. Johnson got a champion’s embrace from his father-in-law, who wasn’t at Augusta National, soon after the round ended.
“It’s awesome. It’s very flattering,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I think the best thing for me after a week like that, the emotional drain, is to get back inside the ropes. … I think this is probably the best thing for me.”
This could be the best thing for Els, too. He’s struggled to regain his past form, working on his swing with teacher David Leadbetter and talking to mental gurus like Jos Vanstiphout and Bob Rotella. When results weren’t immediate, Els got mad at himself and probably, he admitted, “got in my own way.”
The Masters’ meltdown was the last straw. It was difficult “not playing in that group like you’re used to,” Els said. “That’s just falling off the level where you feel you should be.”
By the end of the weekend, Els could return there again.
Divots: Ted Purdy, who lost the Verizon Heritage in a playoff to Cink in 2004, was disqualified when he was late for his 12:50 p.m. tee time. Purdy had a 5-over 76 in the first round. … World No. 2 Jim Furyk, the runner-up last year, shot a 73 Friday to miss the 1-over cut by a stroke. It was his first missed cut in nine events this season. … Davis Love III, the five-time Verizon Heritage champ, shot a 2-under 69, marking the 12th straight time he’s had at least one sub-70 round here. … Nathan Green’s 66 included a double-eagle 2 on the par-5 second. He says he cut a 3-iron into the green and when he heard the crowd’s reaction, “I knew it went in.”