At 44, Els catches second wind on Tour

Ernie Els during Thursday's first round of the PGA Tour's 2014 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – For so many years, perhaps on those long flights from Europe to Asia or from the Middle East to the United States, Ernie Els gave some thought to what it might be like to just play the PGA Tour in America.

Well, in his 20th season as a card-carrying member, he appears determined to find out.

“I’m ready to go,” Els said, moments after posting 4-under 68 in Round 1 of The Players Championship, which just so happens to be his seventh consecutive tournament.

That’s right, seven. The stretch began with the Valero Texas Open, continued with the Shell Houston Open, then moved on to the Masters. Since Augusta, Els has teed it up in the RBC Heritage, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, then last week at the Wells Fargo Championship.

On paper, it’s been a whole lot of pedestrian stuff – three missed-cuts, no finish better than joint 43rd – but Els assesses it differently and sees many positives. “I’m working on things, man. And I felt my energy level has been good. I’ve missed a lot of cuts, but I’ve got to get used to that short putter under pressure. That’s why I’m out here.”

To put Els’ seven-straight in context, consider that Adam Scott is playing just his seventh tournament of the season, Steve Stricker is in his fifth, and Rory McIlroy is making just his eighth start. Indeed, Els at 44 is incorporating a game plan that some PGA Tour rookie might use, but he has committed to it.

“I just felt like I needed to play. I can practice my ass off at The Bear’s Club (in Jupiter, near his home), play (Michael) Jordan for cash, but it’s not the same as playing in a tournament,” he said.

If there were ever a temptation to end his ironman streak, this would have been the week. The Players Championship simply has never agreed with the big South African. In Els’ first 20 starts in this tournament, he missed six cuts – including each of the past four – recorded just four top 10s and broke 70 a mere 10 times in 48 chances.

“I was thinking about coming up Thursday morning, but I had a Thursday morning tee time,” Els said.

There was, of course, a big smile on his face, because inexplicably, the day had gone well. So well, in fact, that Els matched his best Round 1 score on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, where rarely things have gone well. No surprise, then, that when Els bogeyed the par-5 second, he had visions of another miserable experience, but when he holed a 105-yard sand wedge to eagle the par-4 fourth and converted a 6-foot birdie putt at the fifth, the mood of the day changed.

It was buoyant . . . just like his life these days.

“I’ve got a nice team around me, and Liezl and the kids are fine,” Els said.

“You know, listen, life is so good. I’m in Florida, playing the Tour. I haven’t done this since . . . well, never. All this flying around – Europe, Asia, living in England . . ." He shook his head, because for so many years he was the ultimate globe-trotter, and now he’s so content in the U.S., especially with his family settled in Jupiter.

“Every weekend, I’m home," he said. "It’s really not that difficult just to play. It’s been really nice. I’ve been in a good space this year.”

Granted, he’s not thrilled with the way he has scored during this stretch – Els was 12 over for 18 rounds in the six-in-a-row into this week – but there is a bigger picture at work. “I’m not really worried about world rankings. I’m just trying to get my game back to where I know I can compete, and I’m getting there,” he said.

The Big Easy had The Big Smile, because having turned in 2-under 34, he had three birdies against one bogey coming home, to sign for 68, the sort of score to which he is unaccustomed at the Stadium Course. Maybe this ironman thing is working?

“I might play eight in a row,” Els said.

There was dead silence as bewilderment settled on the faces of those listening in. Then Els laughed merrily. “I’m joking.”

Instead, he confirmed that he’ll take off next week’s HP Byron Nelson Championship before teeing it up two weeks in a row – at the BMW PGA Championship in England, then Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament. After an off week, Els will play in the U.S. Open, then take off four straight weeks.

Then again, it might be only three off weeks.

“The Scottish (Open)? I’m looking,” Els said of the week that will precede the Open Championship. “I’ll check the weather. If it’s half-decent, I’ll go play.”

And from Royal Liverpool, where Els will play in his 24th Open Championship, he has penciled in an array of tournaments that he looks forward to: RBC Canadian Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, PGA Championship. “And I like Wyndham,” Els said, “then the FedEx Cup. Heck, I might play 12 in a row.”

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