ORLANDO, Fla. – PGA Tour players’ impressive play and improbable feats can make it difficult to remember they’re simply human, not walking Iron Byrons clad in white pants and pastel polos. They may claim to be wholly focused on their work, but they too must fight back those pesky thoughts which sneak into their head and distract from the task at hand.
Dreams of magnolias and azaleas may be dancing in Ernie Els’ head as he tries to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday. A victory would not only be his first since winning here two years ago, but also would clinch his 11th-hour invitation to the Masters. Els, a two-time runner-up at Augusta National, has played every Masters since 1994. He must finish no worse than third Sunday to crack the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking and earn a Masters trip. A win also would guarantee his Augusta National tee time.
Els’ 67 on Saturday put him in third place at 8-under 208, three shots back of Tiger Woods’ lead. Graeme McDowell is in second, a stroke behind Woods.
Els good play came after a morning practice session at nearby Lake Nona. While watching television Friday night, he noticed he was aimed right and trying to hook the ball back to the target. He corrected his alignment before coming to the course Saturday.
Players’ fates on Sundays are determined as much by sound mechanics as sound minds. Els admit he thought about the Masters during Saturday’s play. He’ll have to fight back those thoughts during the final round.
“Today I was thinking about it a little bit again, but then I kind of laughed it off,” he said. “I’m in a situation when you try and take of that, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot. I’ve got to really take care of this tournament.”
Els could’ve secured that Masters invitation with a victory at last week’s Transitions Championship, but bogeys on his final two holes left him a shot out of a four-man playoff. His frustration was evident during a terse post-round television interview, but Els seems to have recovered. His good play has overshadowed his disappointment.
“The last 18 months have been really difficult,” Els said. “I had to really dig deep just to stay in the game, and now I’m really feeling like I’m coming around again.
“This is what I needed. I needed to get back on that horse as quickly as possible.”
Trying to qualify for the Masters is still stressful. Charles Howell III knows. The Augusta, Ga., native has come to Bay Hill many times needing to play well to qualify for his hometown major. “It’s not very fun, because (the Masters) is not a tournament you want to miss and watch on TV,” Howell said. “There’s a bit of extra pressure. The fact that a player like Ernie Els is not in the Masters, it’s amazing to see.”
Els started this week at No. 62 in the Official World Golf Ranking. The top 50 at week’s end earn Masters invitation. According to OWGR officials, Els needs to finish no worse than solo third to have a chance to move into the top 50. A solo second-place finish would all but guarantee him a spot in the world’s top 50. The world ranking’s top 50 on Sunday earn Masters invitations.
Els trailed Woods by as many as five shots after finishing his round. Woods reached 13 under after a birdie on the par-4 13th. Woods bogeyed the next hole, then hit his tee shot out of bounds on No. 15. Woods said a woman screamed during his downswing after someone passed out in the gallery.
It was more than Woods’ misfortune that put Els in contention at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Els seems to have found his game again, a fact that will let him rest easy, regardless of whether he’s at Augusta.
“If I’m in I’m in, and if I’m not, I’m just glad my game is coming around,” Els said. “Whatever happens, I feel like I can have a good year now. I feel like the hard work is starting to pay off.”