McCabe: Els finally reunited with longtime caddie

Ernie Els hits a shot during the Zurich Classic with caddie Ricci Roberts by his side.

Ernie Els hits a shot during the Zurich Classic with caddie Ricci Roberts by his side.

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As satisfying as it was to see Ernie Els return to good form and play solidly start-to-finish in New Orleans, the view was even better because Ricci Roberts was by his side.

Let’s face it: Roberts on the bag completes the picture of Els that we are used to seeing. They had planned to reunite at the start of 2012, only a freak accident sidelined the veteran caddie and delayed his return to work until early April at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Having settled into a job with Els’ wine company in South Africa, Roberts took part in a charity golf tournament in December at Fancourt. It was for Els’ foundation, so the cause was personal. Even better, Roberts played well enough to score a prize. The good mood had even been enhanced by their prior agreement to restore their partnership in 2012.

So, sure, Roberts was in good spirits, and he and Els were having a lighthearted back-and-forth to entertain the charity crowd. Introduced as his caddie whom he had fired “three or four times,” Roberts said he corrected The Big Easy and told the crowd it was more like “five or six.” Roberts even kidded Els that next time, he would fire the player, and all was well until the caddie went to exit, stage left.

Apparently the stairs were on the right.

Or something like that. Anyway, Roberts fell and caused great harm to his ankle. He said doctors in the Fancourt area wanted to do surgery, but he wouldn’t hear of it; Roberts told them to bandage him up and get him back to Johannesburg, where he had a consultation with his own doctor. Instead of surgery, Roberts wore a boot for several weeks, moving cautiously and was faithful to his therapy. Harbour Town Golf Links at the RBC Heritage was a nice, flat walk for his re-entry. Even though TPC Louisiana was a bigger challenge, it was made that much easier by his man’s superb play.

Excited to be back, Roberts said he was looking forward to a stretch that he knew would include the Open Championship (Royal Lytham & St. Annes, July 19-22), though he wasn’t sure about the U.S. Open (Olympic Club, June 14-17). But now that Els’ runner-up finish to Jason Dufner in New Orleans has pushed the two-time major-championship winner into 40th in the Official World Golf Ranking, Els is virtually assured of being part of that field for a 20th straight summer.

After Els' having missed the Masters, it certainly feels right to have him as part of the U.S. Open. Even more so with Roberts by his side.

• • •

I’LL SEE YOUR CHARGER AND RAISE YOU A CHALLENGER: Another dramatic victory for an unheralded American golfer, another small step for the American muscle-car image.

The difference is, unlike Bubba Watson, who pointed a lot of attention to himself for buying the “General Lee” Dodge Charger from “Dukes of Hazzard” fame, Jason Dufner’s purchase and custom-ordering of a Dodge Challenger is strictly personal.

“My dad had a Challenger when I was a kid. I liked that style of car,” said Dufner, who finally broke through at the Zurich Classic to win his first PGA Tour tournament. “The (third generation) Challenger just came back a few years ago, and I like the American muscle car. I’m not into European cars too much.”

His father’s Challenger in the 1970s was green, but Dufner, after buying his 2012 car from a dealer and shipping it to Texas to be customized, chose metallic black.

Amanda Boyd, Dufner’s fiancee, wouldn’t have made the Challenger her car of choice, but when he broached the subject last fall, no objections were raised.

“I told him, ‘Go ahead.’ It’s all he’s ever talked about,” she said.

“I don’t have a lot of personal possessions like this,” said Dufner, who still chooses to live in Auburn, Ala., unlike so many PGA Tour colleagues who flock to a little more glitz and glamour in south Florida. “But I thought about it the last two or three years and finally let myself go and splurge a little bit.”

• • •

SCORING MACHINES? NOT QUITE: It took until his 22nd round of the PGA Tour season, but David Duval finally broke 70. The good news is, modest though it might be, his second-round 69 at the Zurich Classic helped Duval make his second straight cut after having missed each of the first seven.

Duval clearly has had a problem getting out of the starting blocks, his 74.44 first-round average ranking worst on Tour.

Not much better is D.J. Trahan, who is in the throes of a second straight miserable season. Having ranked from 26th to 89th on the money list in 2006-2010, Trahan fell to 125th a year ago, and the struggles have continued in 2012. He has missed seven cuts in 10 starts. A first-round scoring average of 74.10 is a big reason why.

• • •

PACE-SETTERS, THEY AREN’T: Speaking of those who don’t start fast, Graeme McDowell is a curious study, and so, too, is Geoff Ogilvy.

McDowell ranks joint 152nd when it comes to his Thursday average, a mediocre 72.33, yet he sits T-30 in overall scoring (70.5). Maybe he’s trying to be the PGA Tour’s version of Silky Sullivan; who knows?

Ogilvy’s numbers aren’t quite as dramatic, though they’re still significant. He sits 174th with a 73.13 average for Thursdays, but a respectable 63rd overall (71.00).

• • •

CURIOUS ROUTE: It’s still hard to put your arms around Adam Scott’s schedule, though he’s clearly committed to a “less is more” philosophy. He’ll skip the festivities at Quail Hollow for a second straight year, having chosen to play last week in the Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea. Mimicking what he did at the Masters, when he opened 75-70 but stormed to a Sunday 66 for a back-door top 10, Scott started slowly (71-76) in the Ballantine’s, then finished 68-65 to steal a share of 12th.

Scott will tee it up next week at The Players, just his fifth tournament of the PGA Tour season.

• • •

THE DUFNER FILES: Only because he has been knocking on the door to victory so frequently we’ve had time to gather plenty of nuggets and flavor on Dufner, here’s a fitting opportunity to empty out the notebook with some tidbits:

• Dufner clearly has taken advantage of the tutelage offered by veteran swing coach Chuck Cook, who years ago gained well-deserved recognition for his work with Payne Stewart. Asked about similarities between Stewart and Dufner, Cook suggested that both were unique and not afraid to stand out. Stewart, of course, separated himself with the knickers, while Dufner for years wore bleached-blond hair and an earring. But while Stewart had a classic swing that players stopped and watched, he never loved to practice, Cook said. Instead, Stewart relied upon a dogged competitive spirit once he put the peg in the ground. Dufner, at the other end, can’t get enough of the learning process. “Dufner has more desire than Payne did, to be honest,” Cook said.

• Give former Auburn teammate Layne Savoie credit for connecting Dufner with Cook. When he was first out of Auburn, Dufner worked on his swing with Savoie, who was then on the staff at Cook’s academy in Austin, Texas. But when Savoie left to pursue college coaching opportunities, he suggested Dufner work with Cook, and it’s been a hugely successful partnership.

• So, how did a kid from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – one who had a fairly unremarkable junior career, to be honest – land at Auburn? Well, coach Mike Griffin certainly won’t take credit; instead, it was all Dufner. Determined to play big-time college golf, Dufner circled Clemson, Florida State, and Auburn, visited them all on his own, and thought Auburn was the best fit. “I liked it. Good facilities, and that year they had four or five seniors, so I knew there’d be opportunities to play,” Dufner said. That was 1996. When the story was re-told to Griffin, the former Auburn coach laughed, and said it showed why Dufner “was a very special player.”

• Given that he’s an Auburn kid and his fiancee, Amanda Boyd, is a University of Alabama girl, one might wonder how that relationship works, given the heated rivalry of those schools. Rest assured, it works quite well. Even the Auburn faithful realize Dufner has found a beautiful soulmate. Laughed Griffin, “I’ve told him, he outkicked his coverage on that one, that’s for sure.”

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