Ernie Els returns to PGA Tour after 8 month break
Ernie Els returns to the PGA Tour for the first time in eight months, and he could not have picked a more appropriate setting than Riviera Country Club.
The Hollywood script of his career undoubtedly would start with something like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and it would take place at the fabled course off Sunset Boulevard. Riviera might be the best reminder of his awesome potential, and the failures that have kept Els from fulfilling it.
"I won this event in 1999, shooting 14 under for four rounds to beat Tiger and a couple of other guys," Els wrote on his Web site before leaving his home outside London for the Nissan Open.
The leaderboard that Sunday afternoon was loaded with the biggest names in golf -- Els, Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, David Duval and Nick Price, all ranked in the top 10 and separated by two shots until birdies on the 11th, 12th and 13th holes carried the Big Easy to a two-shot victory.
At his best, Els could stand toe-to-toe with anyone and not flinch.
But that wasn't the case at Riviera four years earlier at the PGA Championship. He was 25 and a rising star, having captured his first major at Oakmont the previous summer by winning the U.S. Open in a three-man playoff. Curtis Strange was so impressed that he referred to Els as "the next guy," although it was reported as "the next god" because of Strange's rich, Virginia drawl.
Els was good enough that no one thought the wiser.
He dismantled Riviera that week, building a three-shot lead going into the final round, and all that awaited was the coronation. Woods was not around. He was 19 years old, preparing to defend his U.S. Amateur title before starting his sophomore year at Stanford.
Golf belonged to a big South African whose swing blended grace with power.
And then the little man in his head started harvesting doubt. Els went conservative in the final round as everyone around him was firing at flags, and he wound up with a 72 to tie for third.
"Felt I should have won that one, to be honest with you," Els said.
How might his career have been different with that PGA Championship at Riviera?
Els would have had consecutive years winning a major, and perhaps would have been better equipped to handle Woods turning pro in '96 and winning everything in sight. Then again, the way Woods has mown through the majors, it might not have mattered.
Els returns to Riviera for his 2006 PGA Tour debut, and he finds himself at another crossroads.
Coming off knee surgery that kept him out of golf for four months, Els is gearing up for another challenge at a time when Woods has won his last three tournaments and appears to be hitting his stride. Els is now 36, a prime age for golfers, and he plans to cut down on his global travels to give himself the best chance to play well when it matters.
His career has been a tug-of-war with Woods, and no one has more rope burns. Els has been runner-up to Woods seven times -- three more than any other player -- and victories like the '99 Nissan Open are rare.
More common is what happened two weeks ago in Dubai.
Els made a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole, only to watch Woods match his birdie from the final group and force a playoff. Woods went first and hit the fairway on the par-5 18th. Els hooked his drive into the sandy soil of a palm grove, then failed to clear the water by no more than a foot to lose the playoff.
"I cannot complain," Els said that day. "After all the hassle I had with the leg, to come back -- this was the strongest field in the world this week -- and to almost win it is fine."
It would be easy to look at Dubai as another layer of scar tissue, although Els is looking at a broader picture. His knee is not quite there, but he was good enough to get into a playoff with the world's No. 1 player.
Besides, the majors are still two months away.
Els was forgotten last year, first because of a lackluster showing in the majors, then when he tore ligaments in his left knee in July during a family holiday in the Mediterranean. But he very well could be the primary rival to Woods in 2006, especially if other members of the Big Five start sliding.
Vijay Singh is No. 2 and starting to look ordinary. This is the first week he has taken off -- two weeks in Hawaii, two weeks in the Middle East, followed by Phoenix and Pebble Beach -- and he has not been a factor since losing in a playoff to Stuart Appleby at Kapalua.
Something seems to be missing from Phil Mickelson's game, which is not alarming except that he traditionally thrives during the West Coast Swing. Lefty has gone only three seasons in his career without winning before Florida, and two of those years he failed to win a PGA Tour event.
Retief Goosen has quietly struggled since closing with an 81 at Pinehurst. When he is on, he can beat anyone. But he continues to search for a swing that will hold up over four days.
Woods has had a revolving door of rivals, and it might be Els' turn again.
While the Masters is two months away, these next three weeks can set the tone for Els. Riviera is a course that suits his eye. Els dislikes La Costa so much he stayed away for two years, although anything goes in match play. Then comes Doral, where Els won in 2002 by holding off a late charge by Woods.
It starts Thursday at Riviera. Still in the prime of his career, Els is not quite finished with the script.
February 15, 2006