EDISON, N.J. – “Where am I?”
Very simple question, but before you think that perhaps Ernie Els was dizzy or had been hit with a haymaker from Hurricane Irene, rest assured neither was true. He had played a fairly crisp round of golf at Plainfield Country Club to close out The Barclays and the true punch of the impending hurricane was hours away.
But what had Els sounding confused was the FedEx Cup standings. He had just finished off a 3-under 67 to finish at 9 under and since he sat in a share of 26th, Els for the moment had enough FedEx Cup points to vault to 95th in the standings. The top 100 advance to next week’s playoff tournament outside of Boston, the Deutsche Bank Championship, and the fact that Els is grinding away to be there is sort of a testament to whether the playoffs work or not.
It’s just that when Els was told his position, at least for right now, he shook his head and forced a laugh.
“It’s sadistic. In a way, it’s fun,” he said. “If you’re into that (stuff).”
Then he laughed freely, because Els truly understands what is going on these days. He and other marquee names such as Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen are for the first time in a long while being forced to play with their backs against the wall. Normally, players of this pedigree are exempt into anything in which they want to play, so being forced to grind away simply to get into the top 125 (for The Barclays) or top 100 (for the Deutsche Bank) was . . . well, what is it?
“It’s almost like every putt you face, you have to make,” said Els, who was 126th a few weeks ago, but played himself to No. 118 by finishing T-30 as a last-minute entrant to last week’s Wyndham Championship.
“You’re trying to survive. It’s desperation. It’s life and death.”
But if you think Els is miserable, think again. He said that being forced “to play a score” has actually been good for him. He blames only himself for the predicament he’s in “because I’ve played poor golf” for a lot of 2011.
Confident that his game is up for the challenge he’s taken on, Els opened with 68-69 to give himself a chance to advance, only “I thought I would need to shoot 65 or 66 to be safe and I shot 67” in the final round.
Sort of the story of his year? In a way, yes, particularly at his seventh hole, the par-5 16th. It’s a birdie hole and Els made a double-bogey. You’ll have to trust him on this, though he can’t be quoted, but he was not in a good frame of mind there. But he made three birdies on the next 10 holes and faced what he at first thought was a pedestrian wedge into the final green.
The only thing is, he watched Ryuji Imada’s approach from about the same angle hit 20 feet beyond the front hole location, then slide down a slippery slope and into the bunker.
“I promise you, that wasn’t a great feeling,” Els said.
He played his approach to 18 feet slightly left of the hole and watched a birdie try roll within inches. The tap-in for par enabled him to walk off with a wide smile, but of course he knew where ever he sat in the FEC standings was tedious; there were still many players on the course.
“When you’re in my position,” Els said, “it’s not a lot of fun.”
Understandable, though the day – and the tournament – ended on a high note, because when all the scores were counted, Els (tied for 32nd) wound up 99th in the FedEx Cup standings and would be headed to TPC Boston next week.
So, too, was Ian Poulter, thanks to some theatrics. Having fallen outside the top 100, the Englishman birdied four of his last five holes to shoot 64 and move into 78th the standings.
Minutes later, both Padraig Harrington and William McGirt, finished their rounds as success stories in the FEC race. Nos. 124 and 125, respectively, coming into the week, Harrington finished with a 69 to wind up in a share of 13th, good for 80th position, while McGirt truly rose to the occasion. Level par on his round, McGirt saw wife Sarah as he walked down the 17th fairway and she flashed one finger, then a zero, then one finger.
McGirt, a 32-year-old rookie, knew he was 101st and in need of some magic.
He got it, too, with an approach from 161 yards to 6 feet and a dead-center birdie roll that pushed him to 96th in the standings.
“It’s what we’ve always dreamed of,” Sarah said, clutching a cell phone that didn’t stop ringing.
And it’s a true testament to what the FEC playoffs are all about when an unheralded rookie who has eaten minitour dust for years is fighting and grinding for the same thing as a three-time major winners like Els and Harrington. You want to play next week? You have to earn it, a challenge that was also met by a journeyman like Bill Lunde.
He began the week 103rd in the standings, shot 69-69 to make the cut, but tossed down a clutch 66 in the final round, thanks to birdies on five of his last 11 holes, to snare a share of 32nd and finish 85th in the standings.
“It shows what the playoffs can do,” Lunde said. “It’s the system we’ve got.”
A system, some will argue, that is terribly flawed, but it sure looked like it provided a great deal of drama up ahead of Hurricane Irene.