NORTON, Mass. – Ernie Els has won three major championships. He once stood over a putt in the darkness against Tiger Woods to save the Presidents Cup at Fancourt with his entire homeland of South Africa counting on him. And this spring he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
So Monday at TPC Boston, with Els teetering around level par for the day and somewhere just inside the top 20 at the Deutsche Bank Championship, surely he could not have sensed much pressure as he stood in the fairway at the par-5 18th hole, hands on his hips, and contemplated his second shot. He knew he needed birdie, but really, for a guy who has accomplished so much in this game, so what? I mean, really – all in good fun, right?
But Els’ FedEx playoff existence was on the line. Pretty serious stuff.
“You’re actually (expletive deleted) yourself,” Els said candidly, flashing a smile, the adrenaline still running through his veins. “I’ve got 186 (yards) front, 210 to the hole, and you’re not sure what the wind is doing. It’s coming this way, that way. You need to hit it over the hazard, but you can’t hit it too long … basically, the same stuff that goes through your head when you’ve got a one-shot lead, or you’re trying to win a tournament.”
He missed the green long, but got up and down for birdie, converting his 6-footer to slip inside the top 70, earning a berth to the BMW Championship that will begin a week from Thursday in Chicago. For Els, who has endured a season to forget, a man direly seeking a little confidence, it was something to build upon. He easily could have shut his season down three weeks ago after missing the cut at the PGA, but he didn’t. Monday outside of Boston, Els appeared to be quite thankful for that.
“Starting to feel more like myself,” he said.
This is what golf’s FedEx Cup playoffs have delivered: more storylines than a busy Manhattan publishing house. Sure, Webb Simpson and Chez Reavie battled for the crown (with Simpson capturing his second title in three starts), but there was so much else going on during a labor-intensive Labor Day in southeastern Massachusetts. The race for spots inside the top 70 included major champions such as Els, Geoff Ogilvy (he’s in), Graeme McDowell (out) and Padraig Harrington (out).
The last man in? Chris Stroud, a fifth-year Tour pro who was having an utterly miserable day. He started his week 75th in points and never did get much going. When he double-bogeyed the 14th hole Monday and followed it with a bogey at 15, he pretty much resigned himself to “Hello, offseason.”
That’s the thing about these playoffs, though. They can provide a man with the best mulligan this side of the Champions Tour. An electronic board at the 17th informed Stroud he stood 76th; he told himself birdie simply would not be enough. He pounded a drive and took aim at the flagstick with his second, deftly cutting a 3-iron from 229 yards at the 528-yard closing hole. The ball settled onto the green and nearly vanished into the cup, trickling just past. The ensuing 3-footer for eagle was a mere formality, and Stroud would finish the day 70th in points. For the first time in his career, he’ll advance to the third round of the playoffs, bound for Chicago.
For Stroud, 29, that’s pretty heady stuff.
“It was a rough day for us,” he said. “It’s been a slow year, but I’m getting better, just a little at a time. I keep knocking on the door giving myself chances, and now Chicago represents another chance. The FedEx Cup is a great idea for us. For me, I’m trying to catapult myself to the next level, winning a tournament, playing the World (Golf Championships) events, those types of things.
“I’ve got some work to do. But maybe the door just got kicked down.”
Geoff Ogilvy had a wild finish to sneak inside the top 70 as well. The former U.S. Open champion by way of Australia pulled his tee shot next to a rock and into a hole at the short, par-4 17th, declared an unplayable lie, then got up and down from 144 yards to save par.
What was he thinking standing over that 21-footer for par?
“Truthfully,” he said afterward, “I thought it was over at that point. I thought I was gone.”
He wasn’t. A birdie at 18, where he, like Els, converted a 6-footer, earned him his spot in Chicago.
“I get rewarded with a trip to Cog Hill,” he said, his words dripping with sarcasm. He’s not a big fan of the place, vocalizing that a year ago. One can bet there were 29 players among DBC’s starting field of 99 headed home who’d gladly trade places with him.
Surely moving on isn’t a matter of life and death. But it’s clear from watching players hovering along the bubble that it matters more than we realize.
Els was asked to compare his 72nd hole birdie-quest Monday to being on the final hole when he’s trying to win a tournament.
“I think it’s worse,” he said of Monday’s situation. “You screw up on the 18th (when) leading, and now you’re going to finish second and you’re going to have a $600,000 check.
“Here, I’m going home.”
Monday afternoon, he was racing from TPC Boston to do that – to head home to Florida aboard his private jet – but it’ll only be temporary. Next week in Chicago, he’ll be back to work. For that, the 41-year-old exhibited a rookie’s enthusiasm. By moving on, he’s accomplishing something. For a guy who has been to the top of the mountain, he didn’t seem to mind the epic fight he’d just endured simply to play another week, when he’ll do it all over again.
“It’s good for me,” Els said. “When you’re on top, you don’t feel this . . . It’s good to be on the bottom of the pile.”