NORTON, Mass. – They extended hands, pulled each other in tight, and then big Ernie Els, his cap in his hand and a smile creasing his face, lightly thumped Tiger Woods in the chest once, then once more – almost like a big brother who was happy to see his wayward younger sibling finding his way home once again.
The players have had their differences in recent times, Els blasting Woods for what he thought was inconsiderate timing of Woods’ first mass news conference following his SUV accident while his peers competed at the WGC Match Play this February. But Sunday, it was just two old pals who respect each other joining up again in a friendly game at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Teeing off more than two hours before the leaders, they hardly had the big stage, as the leaders raced far away and out of their sights. But it was old times, occasional fun times, even if the golf wasn’t always so grand. Their struggles, mostly those of Els, at least provided a little fodder for some chuckles as the two approached the final green.
“We were laughing about my game,” said Els, who shot 1-under 70 to move to 6-under 207. “I was so bad, and I don’t know how I got it under par. We were kind of giggling about that. . . We kind of needled each other out there today.”
Els got off to a fast start (birdie-birdie) and then came undone at holes 5-6, making a double bogey followed by a bogey. The double came after he hit his tee shot into a fairway bunker, then knocked his second, a layup, into a hazard that runs across the fairway.
A stretch like that at times can slouch the shoulders and drain the spirit of The Big Easy, but this time, he came back swinging. Over his next 12 holes, he’d make four birdies on a day when the steady breezes around TPC Boston made players earn them.
“You’ve got to hit quality shots now to make birdies,” said Els. “That first day, it was like playing indoors.”
It wasn’t all bad, for sure. Woods managed four birdies and made some nice saves. At the par-3 16th, Woods stuffed a nice approach 13 feet left of the pin, then watched Els stick one inside 3 feet. Touche, Big Fella.
Woods would make birdie-4 at his final hole after an all-world up-and-down from behind the green, his flop shot deftly landing upon the back collar and trickling downhill until it came to rest mere inches from the hole. “Impossible,” is how Els would describe the escape. That 8-handicapper we saw chop his way around Firestone last month? That guy is long gone.
Woods was back in the 60s for the fourth time in his last seven rounds, and, with more progress, starting to look like a guy whom U.S. captain Corey Pavin might call upon as his bullpen closer come Ryder Cup time in Wales. Outside of Boston, Woods stayed a shot ahead of Els, and very much in command to earn a spot in Chicago and next week’s BMW Championship. Such advancements used to be as regular as the sun rising in the East, but this has been anything but a normal year for Woods. Or for golf.
On a day that started somewhat shakily, Woods would navigate his way through, first finding, then trusting his new swing changes and embracing the new swing philosophies being imparted upon him by instructor Sean Foley. His stats were somewhat pedestrian – eight fairways, 12 greens – but it’s the number at the bottom of the card that most interests Woods. It was nice to get to the clubhouse in fewer than 70 strokes.
A “step,” he would term it.
“When the wind blows,” he explained, “nothing really feels natural. I had to really grind and stay committed to what I was doing out there. I did it, for the most part. Early on, I was struggling a little bit, but fixed it, got it, and hit a lot of good shots after that.”
It’s likely none of those shots felt as good as the two delivered to the right side of his chest by Els before the two walked off the 18th green. The pair had cleared the air early during Masters week when Woods made his return to competition after five months away, and they played alongside each other at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
It was evident that Els not only enjoyed sub-par scoring on a day when he at times had very little in the tank, but valued the company of an old pal over 18 holes on a Chamber of Commerce day in southeastern New England. The feeling was mutual.
“Always nice to play with ‘E,’ ” said Woods, who said he first teed it up with Els in 1994, when Woods was still an amateur.
“We’ve been friends for a very long time,” said Els, “and it’s nice to see him back on the road he should be. In his personal life and his professional life, I think he’s on the right road now, so it won’t be too long before we see good things again.”
Is his old friend getting closer to the form that propelled him to 14 major titles and his longstanding stranglehold on World No. 1?
“I think he seems like he’s not far away,” said Els. “The things he’s working on are right. He’s got speed back in his swing. I think he’s on the right path.”