Ernie Els has beenbeaten down the stretch by Vijay Singh, by Retief Goosen, by Phil Mickelsonand, of course, by Tiger Woods. Add a new guy to the list: Boo Weekley of Jay,Fla. Ernie has it all, the major titles and the big contracts and the privatejet, but on Monday afternoon at gusty Hilton Head, S.C., Weekley had somethingEls did not: tremendous good luck. On the final two holes Weekley duffed pitchshots for birdie, then holed pitch shots for par. Now he has the tartan coat,the delightfully gaudy wrap the winner of the Verizon Heritage Classic isdraped in each year. (Els is still looking for his first one.) Now Weekley hassecured a berth in the 2008 Masters, thanks to the reintroduction of thewin-and-you're-in rule. (Els hasn't officially qualified yet.) Now Weekley isninth on the 2007 money list. (Els is 19th.)
Weekley has beeninvolved in the two best tournaments of the year: the Monday finish at theHonda Classic, at which he lost in a four-man playoff to Mark Wilson, and theMonday finish at Hilton Head. The two chip-ins came from a player who looked asif he had shown up for his 7:45 a.m. tee time straight from a duckblind--unshaven, chew in his lip, weathered beyond his 33 years. The whole showwas crazy-good drama, with the CBS crew calling the action live on Golf Channelduring prime time for weekday soaps. On 18 Els had a six-iron shot from 150yards, which he needed to hole to tie Weekley at 14 under par. Els missedhitting the flagstick by less than a foot. Poor guy. Not a bit of luck.
The event was allabout Ernie, until Weekley did his Craig Perks imitation at the end. ButWeekley is a far better player than Perks, who chipped in twice in the finaleto win the 2002 Players Championship.
As wild and woollyas Monday was, that's how calm and cool it was on Saturday evening, when Ernieowned the tournament and the practice tee. He was alone except for his newcaddie (J.P. Fitzgerald, replacing Ricci Roberts) and his new clubs (Callaways,replacing Titleists).
His swing, though,does not change: the gorgeous rhythm, that big broom-sweep of a move, theclosest thing there is today to Sam Snead's classic action circa 1954. WithErnie, agents and psychologists, clubs and confidence all come and go, but hisswing endures. Same as it ever was. The Ernie highlight reel is Groundhog Day,Ernie in the Bill Murray role. Here he is winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont in1994. Here's Ernie shooting 80 in the final round of the U.S. Open atShinnecock Hills, Father's Day 2004, in yet another major that was there forErnie to pluck. Here he is in early April, when he missed the cut at Augusta,and here he is his next time out, last week, opening with a pair of six-under65s on the lovely Harbour Town Golf Links. He's always the same, from adistance, anyway. There will be no surprises for us come mid-June, when Erniereturns to Oakmont for the national championship. Whether he wins or contendsor misses the cut, he'll do it with that Pacific roller of a swing.
In Saturday'sdusk, a dozen or so people were watching him practice. He's the humanmetronome. A baby was fast asleep.
"Er-NAY!"a man suddenly bellowed, and the trance was broken.
Hilton Head duringthe week of the tournament is like New Orleans the week of Mardi Gras. Tiger,understandably, is on edge when drunks are around, but Ernie simply laughs, orat least that's what he did on Saturday night. His session ended, and he signedand he talked. Through 54 holes he was at 12 under, tied for second with KevinNa, each a shot behind the leader, Jerry Kelly.
"This isbig," Ernie said, an electronic Heritage leader board behind him.
He has won theU.S. Open twice, the British Open once, contended in so many others. He's wonall over the world. He's the only true internationalist in the game today.Hilton Head is a nice Tour stop and not much more. Why would he say big?Whatever the outcome of the 2007 Heritage, Ernie's winding up in St. Augustine,in the Hall of Fame. How did Hilton Head get big?
It was big toErnie because it showed that his rounds of 78 and 76 at Augusta were producedby some other golfer, the other Ernie, the one who never gets written about inthe Monday papers. It's big because he hasn't won on the PGA Tour since October2004. It's big because he wants to show that he can win with his new clubs,with Fitzgerald, with his surgically repaired knee, with Jos Vanstiphout andBob Rotella in his head. It's big because he knows the deep truth in somethingthat Tiger always says: You start with baby steps. The order is crawl, walk,run.
"Winning herewould be a start," Els said on Saturday night, after a sloppy third-round71 that included "some swings and some mental mistakes that no mini-tourplayer would ever make." (If Tiger could talk like Ernie, with Ernie'scandor, he'd seem so much more real. But he'd no longer be Tiger.) "Itwould help get me in a [mental] place where I can win four or five times a yearand, maybe by the end of this year or the start of next, be in position to makea run at Tiger." In terms of skill alone, if anyone is in a position to doit, it's Ernie. Ernie's driving game is more consistent than Mickelson's, andhis pitching-and-chipping game, while less flashy, is nearly as good.
Saturday night, itturned out, was the calm before the storm. On Sunday a fierce wind blewstraight off Calibogue Sound and across the 18th green and fairway and the restof the course. A tree branch fell on a tournament volunteer (he sustained noserious injuries), and walls and roofs of the food tents were flapping so hardyou could barely think. One green had a coating of bunker sand on it, lookinglike a golf course in Vail after a dusting of snow. The flagsticks were bentlike Yao Ming in an airliner loo. The birds were staying close to the ground,the boats on moorings were empty, and at 1:10 p.m.--after only two hours ofgolf, time enough for the first group off 10 to make it through 17--play wassuspended. The par-3 17th hole was close to unplayable, and the 18th was worseyet. There was almost no way to keep a ball on the final green.
"It was prettyridiculous," said Weekley, an outdoorsman who played one hole on Sunday,describing both the conditions and the stories going around the locker room.Boo hits it low, grew up in the windswept Florida Panhandle and spent yearsplaying golf in windproof rain pants. It takes something to get him to use theword ridiculous.
Mark Hensby, theAustralian golfer, was an early starter on Sunday. He hit a 78-yard nine-ironshot into the wind and a downwind seven-iron that went about 200 yards. Hisgroup marched through the gale while avoiding the branches that danced acrossthe fairways like hot dog wrappers at a Western Open at Cog Hill.
Kelly worked onhis putting because, he said, "we don't get to practice in 40-mile-per-hourwinds that often." Fresh from Augusta, where he had his first top 10 finish(tie for fifth) in a major championship, Kelly was already thinking about theBritish Open at Carnoustie in July. And trying to win the Hilton Headtournament.
The 1:10 p.m.suspension of play came with word that a 4 p.m. announcement would revealwhether golf would resume on that day. That left nearly three hours for thecaddies and players (and spectators) to do close to nothing. Davis Love IIIwent back to his rental house to watch NASCAR's Samsung 500 on TV. KirkTriplett hung out with the caddies in the cart room, underground and out of thewind. There were players wandering through the clubhouse, looking for spotswith good cellphone reception. Weather delays yield changes in flight plans,and some guys--most guys, actually--still fly commercial. In the locker roomthere were dozens of pros watching TV, making phantom swings, eating grilledvegetables, killing time.
Zach Johnson andhis caddie, Damon Green, took a steady stream of high fives and handshakeswherever they went. If anybody can remain unchanged by winning a major, it'sJohnson, whose golf last week improved as he caught up on his sleep: 70 tostart, 68 in round 2, 66 on Saturday, followed by a Monday 71 for sixthplace.
Last week littlepostscripts to his Masters victory came to light. For instance, at theSunday-night dinner at the club, only an hour or so after the green-jacketceremony, Augusta National members toasted the new winner, as they always do,but this year there was a twist. Johnson was given a photo collage, beautifullymounted and wood-framed, of his Masters win, some of the photos barely an hourold. Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, pulled a black cloth off theframe with the words, "Here at Augusta National we work fast," andpresented the artwork to Johnson. The Iowan, who could not have been morepatient with reporters and fans last week, was awed by the unexpected gift fromthe club along with the club coat, the winner's hardware and the thing thatnobody ever talks about--the loot ($1.305 million).
Ernie Els has madeall the money he needs. He'll probably return to Augusta next year looking forhis first green jacket. On Monday at Hilton Head, when play resumed at 7:45a.m., he was looking for something more modest. But on Monday afternoon it wasWeekley, who shot a final-round 68, wearing the tartan coat, while Els wasjetting off to play in China. Weekley will be playing this week in New Orleans.The tournament was big for Boo, and for Ernie. On Monday afternoon Els feltgood about his final-round 70. "I had myself to blame on Saturday," hesaid. On Monday he got beat by a guy who pitched in twice for par on the finaltwo holes. Not much you can do about that. "I've come close on manyoccasions like this, in many tournaments," Els said. "I have to keepknocking on the door. At least today I feel a lot more positive after the roundthan I did on Saturday. I didn't win. That's disappointing. But this is a stepin the right direction."
For his first PGATour win Weekley beat one of the best players in the game, and he did it downthe stretch on holes that were raw and demanding. But he doesn't see it inone-on-one terms. "I didn't just beat Ernie," the winner said. "Ibeat 132 people in the field this week. I beat the golf course. That was thewhole key, just playing the golf course."
When you win yourfirst big event, that's what you do, you beat the golf course, and all thepeople on it along the way. When you've won and lost as much as Ernie Els, youfind it gets a little more complicated. You have to beat the golf course,everybody on it--and yourself.
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The exposed 18th hole was unplayable on Sunday and not much easier when Weekleyteed off on Monday.