Column: Big Easy makes an impressive comeback at the Masters
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Ernie Els felt all eyes turn his way when he showed up at the Augusta National practice range early Friday morning. No one had any idea what to say, an uncomfortable pall of silence settling over the Big Easy.
''It was like I didn't have any pants on,'' he said, managing a hint of a smile.
By the time Els walked off the course midway through a blustery afternoon, his Masters was over.
His career, though, is still alive.
Outside of the guy who collects the green jacket, that might be the biggest triumph of the week.
''At least,'' Els said, sounding more than a little relieved, ''I was almost back to my normal self.''
The South African has four major titles on his resume, something that's only been done by 27 other golfers. He might be the only member of that select group to six-putt from 2 feet in a major championship.
It will forever be a part of his legacy, Els whacking the ball back and forth past the cup on the first green Thursday, an almost comic display of ineptitude that will live in infamy as long as there are Vines and smartphones.
''A nightmare'' is the way Bernhard Langer described it, and he's someone who knows a thing or two about getting the yips while putting. ''I would not wish that on anybody.''
That's why Els got the silent treatment when he arrived at the course for the second round. No one was really sure whether to offer up words of encouragement, or condolences, or perhaps make an attempt at humor.
''It was not a nice feeling,'' Els said. ''But people had a good reason to look at me like that after what happened.''
It wasn't out of line to wonder if his career might in jeopardy, a prospect Els seemed to raise himself when he said dejectedly after Day 1, ''We'll see where we go from here.''
Before leaving Augusta, Els made sure that quintuple-bogey 9 didn't become the thing that defines him, making it clear he intends to fight through his putting woes.
''If you play this game long enough, you'll make a fool of yourself,'' Els said. ''Unfortunately, I did it on one of the biggest stages. But I'll try to take something out of this.''
The way things started on Friday, it looked as though Els might want to consider another line of work. His approach shot at that bedeviling first hole sailed far left of the flag, striking a patron in the head. He chipped onto the green but needed three putts to get down, settling for a double-bogey after missing a 2-footer.
Els bogeyed two more holes on the front side, his overall score climbing to 12-over while some fans quietly joked among themselves at his woes.
''Better look out. Ernie's teeing off,'' one woman said.
''We're fine, as long as he's not using his putter for a driver,'' someone replied, drawing a few guffaws.
Els finally pulled himself together at the par-5 eighth, stringing together three good shots before rolling in a 16-foot birdie putt. He followed that by making a testy 4-footer to save par at the ninth, which put a little more bounce in his step as he made the turn.
Then, in Amen Corner, Els struck one of his best shots of the day into the swirling wind over Rae's Creek, the ball stopping 3 feet from the flag. He sank that putt for another birdie, the crowd roaring about as loud as they did all day.
''Go get `em, Ernie!'' they screamed.
Els responded with two more birdies at the remaining par-5s, sinking putts from 6 feet at the both the 13th and the 15th. At that point, some patrons were wondering if he might improbably make the cut.
Alas, that was just wishful thinking. Els bogeyed the 17th after dumping his second shot into a bunker. He finished with a 5-footer to save par at the 18th, signing for a 1-over 73 on a day when par was a very good score, certainly a far cry from his 80 in the opening round.
Just as important, Els regained a measure of self-respect.
''He could have just turned right off (the first green) instead of left and said `enough' yesterday, and nobody would have thought any worse for it,'' fellow player Davis Love III said.
If Els takes anything out of this week, it's not to change your putting style in the days before a major championship. Even though he sank 68 of 70 putts from 10 feet and in the previous week at Houston - the best accuracy rate of any player from that distance - he decided to alter his stroke, going with more of a straight-up, pendulum-type approach.
''It felt OK on the putting green,'' Els said. ''But I still didn't feel that I can do it comfortably under pressure, and obviously that showed.''
While his decision-making should raise some eyebrows, no one could question his heart.
Yep, Els missed the cut.
But he might've saved his career.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .