ORLANDO, Fla. – Don’t ask Ernie Els about the Transitions Championship. “I’m over it,” he said, turning his head in the opposite direction. The body language did not match the words that were coming out of his mouth.
Els, of course, squandered a spot at Augusta – and a much-needed victory – down the stretch four days ago at Innisbrook with a couple of short misses. He looked solid Thursday in Round 1 of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, though that missed 4-foot birdie putt on his last hole (No. 9) probably didn’t help the interview enthusiasm.
“I’m just about there,” Els said. “I need to keep my head up and try to put rounds together. I think a win is around the corner.”
That was positive Ernie. Another mention of Transitions, however, and the mood around this intimate gathering of scribes turned awkward.
“You guys gotta understand,” he implored. “I started the final round three shots behind, playing a helluva round to get to the lead and then, OK, I made some mistakes. But you keep going on as if I killed somebody. . . . I’m over it. If you guys can get over it.”
Els answered one more harmless question and then ended the interview, muttering to himself about the story that, in his mind, won’t end. The Els inquisition lasted less than three minutes. Moments later, he was driving out of the parking lot.
Clearly, he’s over it.
Els needs a victory here at Arnie’s place or next week in Houston to keep his streak alive at Augusta. He has driven down Magnolia Lane every year since 1994.
Paired with Tiger Woods and starting on Bay Hill’s back nine, Els parred his first 10 holes and then gave crowds a jolt with three consecutive birdies, on Nos. 2-4. A bogey on No. 6 and misread of the wind on the eighth resulted in bogeys, dropping Els to 1 under. A birdie on No. 9 would’ve sent him back to his home at nearby Lake Nona as a more satisfied man, but, alas, he had to settle for 71.
Els, 42, has played in only five PGA Tour events this season, though he’s in the middle of a three-week stretch that included two days at the Tavistock Cup. The action is good for his game.
“When you’ve been in a slump like I’ve been in,” said Els, “it’s sometimes good to play and really see where your game is.”
Els, an 18-time winner on Tour, including three major championships, posted his last victory at Bay Hill in 2010. Perhaps someone should’ve asked about that instead.
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Phil Mickelson played in the shadow of Tiger Woods on Thursday, the gallery showing more favoritism to the 8:26 a.m. pairing. Mickelson might have stolen a few fans from Woods and Co. had his game been sharper.
Poor swings off the tee on No. 18 (out-of-bounds) and No. 3 (water) led to double bogeys. Mickelson, who started on the 10th, played a stretch of four holes in the middle of his round 5 over. He fought back, however, with three birdies over the last six holes to get to 1 over. He called his putting “phenomenal.”
“This is our stretch, my stretch, starting here into Augusta,” Mickelson said. “What is good about that is regardless of how I play, I’m going to fight hard on every shot and I’m going to be working on my game because I have something to keep striving for, even if I don’t play well.”
There was solid play going on in the groups that sandwiched Mickelson. Woods finished 3 under for the day as did Anthony Kim, playing in the group behind. As Mickelson prepared to reload off the 18th tee, Kim found perfection. The man carrying a college stand bag (his alma mater, Oklahoma), aced the par-3 203-yard 17th with a 5-iron to briefly jump into the lead.
“My caddie said 204,” Kim said. “But it was 203, obviously.”