ORLANDO, Fla. – Ernie Els went two years without winning. Now he has a chance to make it two wins in a row.
The Big Easy was in a four-way tie for the lead going into the weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, still plenty of golf left at Bay Hill considering how some of them got to the top.
Ben Curtis opened with two bogeys and wound up with a 5-under 67, his lowest score this year. Davis Love III didn’t make a par until his 10th hole, made six bogeys and still shot a 71. D.J. Trahan didn’t have too many adventures in his round of 68.
Joining them at 7-under 137 was Els, who had a 69 and was as surprised as anyone to be there.
Phil Mickelson, who hit two balls into the water from the tee and one ball into the hole from the fairway, was one shot behind.
Els could easily have spent Friday afternoon grinding to make the cut except for the way he survived a nasty patch on the front nine, when the tournament could have gotten away from him.
“I don’t know if it was the break or my mental strength at the moment. I’m not sure,” Els said. “But you know, I got through that little patch and started building again.”
He opened with a bogey from the bunker, which is no disgrace. He hit a bad tee shot to the left on the par-5 fourth hole, making such a mess that he had to struggle for par. Then came a three-putt bogey on No. 5 from only about 35 feet.
“That really got me angry,” Els said. “You don’t want to be in that frame of mind standing on the sixth tee.”
The par-5 sixth wraps around a lake, and with the wind in his face, Els hit a solid shot that was slightly pulled. It took a few hops and disappeared over the edge toward the water, leading to what surely would be a bogey, maybe worse.
That’s when fate intervened.
Els found the ball a few feet away from a shelf, sitting in an inch of water. He removed his shoes, and had a good enough lie that he could play out to the fairway. From there, he hit 4-iron short of the green and saved par.
“If that ball was another yard left, it would have been into the deep end,” Els said. “That was big.”
Equally big was saving par from a plugged lie in the bunker on No. 7. He made par on those two holes to stay at 2 under, when he easily could have been even par or worse, right around the cut line.
And just look at him now.
“I was a yard away from probably not being in the tournament anymore, because that would have been a sure double bogey,” he said. “I would have gone back to even par for the tournament, and it was a battle for making the cut and trying to get yourself in red figures.”
From there, he ran off four birdies on the next five holes – the exception was a putt he missed from just over 10 feet – and he worked his way to the top with a 5-iron into about 3 feet for birdie on the 17th.
Els had intended to hit a 6-iron until his caddie, Ricci Roberts, called him off and suggested the 5-iron.
That’s the club that has always served him well, for it was the 5-iron to the 17th at Congressional that Els recalls so fondly, a key shot that brought him his second U.S. Open.
Suddenly, things are looking up.
“To be honest with you, I’m not thinking about it,” Els said. “I’m just thinking about playing good golf. That’s all I want to think about. I want to think about getting my game in shape for Augusta. I’m thinking about getting my short game in great shape. I’m thinking about my putting all the time. I’m just thinking about getting my (stuff) together and keeping it together.
“If I can be ready to play, I think I’ll be OK.”
With a few good breaks he had coming, he’s looking just fine.
Two of the four players atop the leaderboard need to win Bay Hill to get into the Masters – Love and Trahan.
Right behind is a guy who would like to win Bay Hill for other reasons. This has not been a great year for Mickelson, either on the course or at home as his wife continues her recovery from breast cancer.
Being in contention was exciting, and that might not even be the best part of the week. To get ready for the greens of Bay Hill, Mickelson went to the Plantation Golf Club in the California desert earlier in the week and made a bunch of birdies – so many, in fact, that he wound up with a 58, the lowest score of his life.
So the putting is coming together at the right moment. At the same time, Mickelson keeps it interesting. His two biggest putts were for bogey after hitting tee shots into the water on No. 3 and No. 6. The one time he didn’t putt came at No. 8, when he holed a pitching wedge from about 135 yards for eagle.
Lefty could only laugh when asked if he found the day to be stressful or if that was just a typical round.
“I find that an interesting question because there’s some legitimacy to it,” Mickelson said. “I have a tendency to have up-and-down rounds like that. But it’s fun. I enjoy trying to create shots and hit shots and take on some of these pins and make birdies, and unfortunately, I tend to make a few mistakes at times.”
At Bay Hill, there was a little of everything on Friday.