DORAL, Fla. – Ernie Els no longer is eligible for the award of logging the most miles before getting to Doral.
He crossed an ocean this year, but that was to get to Hawaii for the Sony Open. Since then, the travel for this generation’s most global player has been strictly in the United States – San Diego and Los Angeles, Arizona and Florida, where he now lives most of the year.
Gone are those days when it was hard to keep track of the Big Easy. He was in South Africa, then his home south of London, in Qatar and Dubai, over to Florida, then off to China.
Rarely has he felt so refreshed.
The trick now is to make sure his game feels as good as his mind, and Els has taken a big step in that direction with rounds of 68 and 66 in the CA Championship to take a one-shot lead over Robert Allenby into the weekend.
“I’m not sure what the reason is why I’m feeling this good,” Els said. “I haven’t traveled that much this year maybe. I didn’t get to the Middle East and all of that stuff. That might have helped me a little bit. Being at home here with the kids, going to school here in Jupiter must be a positive. I felt a bit more grounded.
“I felt a bit more calm this year than maybe previous years,” he said. “It’s probably been a good change for me just to change my schedule up a little bit. It’s a bit more what I want to do, not what everybody else wants me to do.”
Els turned 40 last fall, more than half his life spent traveling the world. He drives his 10-year-old daughter to school when he’s home in Palm Beach County, and he feels his son Ben, who has autism, is getting the best care.
For a big South African who is so relaxed, it has allowed him to work harder than ever on his game. Rarely is his mind so much at ease, and Els simply doesn’t want to waste this time by not having a game that’s of equal standing.
After failing to break par in the Honda Classic and finishing toward the bottom of the leaderboard, he worked diligently over the week and all the way until it was time to tee off in this World Golf Championship, on alignment and ball position and posture.
Els was at his best on Friday, a round of wacky weather on the Blue Monster.
He not only played bogey-free in his round of 66 that put him at 10-under 134, he really didn’t come all that close to dropping a shot. Els ran off three straight birdies, including a 7-iron from an awkward spot in the rough on the 14th hole to 4 feet, and even when he made par, his shots were clean and with purpose.
“When you are like that mentally, you want to have a bit of game,” he said. “If I can get those two flowing, I think I might have some good stuff happening.”
Some weird stuff was happening with the weather.
The starting times were moved up Friday because of the threat of storms, and Tour officials got this one right. The rain started to arrive shortly after lunch, as players had about an hour left in their rounds.
What preceded the heavy rain – 1.15 inches in about three hours – was a shift in the front.
Els was standing on the par-3 fourth hole, readying to take back the club, when he felt a gust that was substantially cooler. The wind suddenly came out of the opposite direction.
“Very, very strange,” Els said. “I think the only other time I had that happen was in Scotland when the tide changed. Other than that, I’ve never seen that happen.”
Defending champion Phil Mickelson was in the fairway on the par-5 10th. He was ready to hit a hybrid to the green when he felt the wind change, saw the water from the adjacent lake swirl, and the temperatures drop. Out came the 3-wood.
Allenby, who made a hole-in-one on the 13th hole with a 5-wood and the wind in his face, had just come off another eagle on the par-5 first when he got to the second tee.
The hole is 404 yards, typically plays downwind, and players often will try to drive near the green given the right hole location. Friday wasn’t one of those days, so Allenby took out a 5-wood to leave himself a wedge to the green. The wind began changing as the ball was in the air, and when he reached his ball, that wedge turned into a 6-iron.
“The conditions were pretty tough, and they weren’t so bad probably for the first three hours,” Allenby said. “But then that cool front, that change, came through, and everything sort of changed. The whole golf course changed.”
Luckily, he was almost done for the day.
Allenby waited in a van for about 20 minutes while lightning threats passed, then finished up his round just as the heavy stuff was coming down. It was so bad he could barely see the flag on a 50-foot birdie putt, which he three-putted for a bogey on the ninth for a 67.
Bob Hope Classic champion Bill Haas was among the first to finish with a 66, and he was at 7-under 137 with Charl Schwartzel, who had to play two shots – a chip and a par putt – after a three-hour delay for a 70.
Soren Hansen (69) and Padraig Harrington (68) were four shots back, while Mickelson finished with a 69 and was six shots behind.