Els, Westwood strive for longer stay in playoffs

Ernie Els, shown during the second round of The Barclays, is in position to make his 23rd start of the PGA Tour season next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship, which would be a personal best.
Ernie Els, shown during the second round of The Barclays, is in position to make his 23rd start of the PGA Tour season next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship, which would be a personal best. ( Associated Press )

Friday, August 22, 2014

PARAMUS, N.J. – At a time of year when the finish line comes into view and fatigue sets in, two of the PGA Tour’s cornerstones desire to keep playing.

Of course, there are different motivations.

For Ernie Els, whose second consecutive 3-under 68 at Ridgewood Country Club has him in the thick of things at The Barclays, it remains a sort of rejuvenation as he nears his 45th birthday. Given that he has all but assured of improving upon his FedEx Cup playoff standing of 91st place, Els likely will play in his 23rd tournament of the PGA Tour season next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

It would set a personal best during a season in which Els has made like Dana Quigley. Earlier this year, he played in seven consecutive tournaments; this week marks his sixth in a row.

“The stuff that I needed to do, I needed to be under pressure,” Els said when asked why he is playing so often at his age. He was referring to new equipment (he switched to Adams at the start of the season) and the desire to get familiar with it, because he thinks he still has winning golf in him.

“It’s one thing playing and practicing at home," said Els, a South African who lives in Jupiter, Fla. "Even with MJ (basketball's Michael Jordan, a fellow member at The Bear’s Club), you can put as much money on a game as you want, but at the end of the day, you have to do certain things under pressure.”

For Lee Westwood, whose birdie at the 16th hole enabled him to get to 1-over 143 for 36 holes and provide hope that he’d make the cut on the number, it’s all about the opportunity to sort of audition for a possible Ryder Cup pick. Hard to believe a guy who has been ranked No. 1 in the world and has played on eight consecutive European teams would need some last-minute lobbying, but such is the hand he has dealt himself.

Admittedly, the Englishman hasn’t had the most consistent of seasons, but he is confident he has turned the corner.

“I’m starting to play much better,” Westwood said after going 70-73 at Ridgewood. “When you’ve played a bad spell and you feel like you have your form back and you’re right on the edge and you like (you’re there), it always kicks you.”

“It never gives to you straight-away; it always holds a bit back. The game of golf is just persecuting me for a little while. It’s not ready to let me go.”

He laughed softly, then talked of the sort of thing that happens upon thinking he has found his form. Westwood missed the green left with a 158-yard shot at the par-4 14th, then hit a delicate pitch shot out of thick rough that seemed OK, until it didn’t quite carry to the top tier of the green.

When his ball rolled down the slope and off the green, Westwood needed three more shots. The double bogey dropped him to 2 over for the tournament, a number that was never going to make the cut, so the 5-footer that he made at the 16th was crucial.

Not to get in contention for this playoff win, perhaps, but certainly to provide European captain Paul McGinley with more data.

“I think there’s a lot that’s going to happen the next couple of weeks,” Westwood said. “I’ve talked to Paul, and he said he’s watching to see how I do. So making the cut can’t do any harm, can it?”

Westwood knows he’s not likely to qualify for the team, that he needs to be a captain’s pick, but he insists he hasn’t studied the standings for the European Points List (top four – currently Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Victor Dubuisson and Sergio Garcia – make it) or the World Points List (next five – Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn, Jamie Donaldson and Graeme McDowell – qualify). Westwood knows only that logic dictates that Ryder Cup veterans such as himself, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter are seriously being considered, but then there is Stephen Gallacher.

“I don’t know whether he’s on the team,” Westwood said, not knowing that the answer is no, “but obviously he’s playing well in Czechoslovakia.”

Donaldson leads at 9 under through 36 holes of the D+D Czech Masters in Prague, and Gallacher is tied for third, two strokes back.

That, of course, makes it more pressing that Westwood get two more rounds this weekend to show some form. Sitting 107th in the FedEx Cup standings, Westwood must make the cut here for a chance to advance among the top 100 players into next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship. He was on the edge after completing his disappointing 73, so the Englishman was asked about his upcoming schedule.

He quipped that it included a hearty lunch.

But was he considering playing options should he leave Ridgewood after 36 holes?

“I should make the cut,” he said with confidence. “My schedule, then, is playing Saturday and Sunday. After that, then I’m playing the Frys (.com Open on Oct. 9-12 in San Martin, Calif.). In between those, it’s a bit vague.”

There was a smile on his face and a hope in his heart that the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland (Sept. 26-28) would be part of the schedule.

Good luck to Westwood in that pursuit, but for Els, the Ryder Cup is one thing that clearly isn’t circled. He’s a global icon, yes, but ineligible for the biennial matches as a South African. Still, The Big Easy does have plenty of playing opportunities lined up, given that he’s got the playing fever of a 24-year-old right off the mini-tours.

But when you toss the numbers at him – 22 PGA Tour tournaments, at least, and perhaps as many as 24, plus four more on the European Tour, Els shakes his head and laughs. OK, maybe he is pushing it more than necessary. He said if he pushes through next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship and into the BMW Championship, future plans for the European Tour’s Race to Dubai could change.

“I’m not going to do that,” Els said. “I’m just focused on this (FedEx Cup playoffs), and if this works out well, it changes a lot of things.”