Solid season has Big Easy at ease ahead of Masters

Ernie Els shook hands with fans between holes, and stopped to

take a picture with one on his way up the 17th fairway. He even

posed with a “Flat Stanley” as he made his way to the putting

green.

Don’t make too big a deal of it, but the Big Easy is feeling

mighty at ease at this Masters.

“I don’t want to get too overconfident,” Els said Wednesday at

the Par-3 tournament. “But at least I’ve brought a little game

here.”

That’s a bit of an understatement.

The three-time major champion comes to Augusta National playing

his best golf in years. He ended a two-year drought at the World

Golf Championship at Doral, then became the tour’s only double

winner two weeks later with a victory at Bay Hill. It was the first

time Els had won back-to-back tournaments in seven years.

He has four top-10 finishes in his eight PGA Tour starts this

year, and has climbed to eighth in the world rankings, up nine

spots from where he finished last season.

“I haven’t been in this kind of form coming in here for many

years,” Els said.

Not that it’s drawn much notice. Els, Steve Stricker, Anthony

Kim – no one is getting anything more than a cursory glance with

Tiger Woods playing his first tournament since the shocking sex

scandal that turned the world’s most famous athlete into tabloid

fodder. Even defending Masters champion Angel Cabrera was able to

walk by a group of reporters without being stopped Tuesday. They

were all too busy keeping an eye out for Mark O’Meara, Woods’

playing partner Tuesday and Wednesday.

“People are not going to be talking about who’s in form until

probably Thursday morning when we start the event,” Els, who

didn’t make the cut for the formal pre-tournament interviews, said

after his win at Bay Hill. “It’s going to be all about Tiger and

him coming back and everything. So I think we will all be sideshows

until Thursday morning. And I think we’re fine with that. Everybody

is fine with that.”

It might be the best thing for Els, actually.

The South African is a two-time winner at the U.S. Open (1994

and 1997), and he won the 2002 British Open at Muirfield. But it

was the Masters that he stayed up late to watch as a youngster in

South Africa, and it’s the tournament closest to Els’ heart.

And it’s also the one that has broken it – repeatedly.

He was runner-up to Vijay Singh in 2000 because he couldn’t get

a putt to drop over his last three holes. After top-10 finishes the

next three years, he thought 2004 was finally going to be his year.

Seemed it, too, when he took a two-stroke lead on Phil Mickelson

with an eagle – his second of the day – on the par-5 13th.

But he two-putted for a par on 17 and drove into a bunker so

deep on 18 he couldn’t even see the flag, then had to wait out

Mickelson in hopes of a playoff. Unable to watch, he munched on an

apple and then headed to the putting green.

He didn’t see Mickelson make the 18-foot birdie putt that gave

him his green jacket, but he heard the raucous cheers. Els tossed

his putter aside and quietly walked away.

“It’s disappointing,” he said then. “I’ve got to take stock

after this.”

In the years that followed, there were some who wondered if he

would recover. Though he went on to win the Memorial in 2004, it

was one of only three victories until this year. His slump between

the 2008 Honda Classic and Doral was the longest of his career.

Meanwhile at the Masters, he hasn’t made the cut the last three

years.

“It’s always in my head this time of the year,” Els said at

Bay Hill. “You try and downplay it, but you do think about

it.”

Maybe that’s why he got testy when approached after Wednesday’s

practice round.

“I just feel good,” Els said. “Give me a break. What can I

tell you?”

Els had been decidedly relaxed during the round, laughing and

joking with fellow South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis

Oosthuizen, and Australia’s Marc Leishman. He tipped his cap when

fans yelled out, “This is the year!” and “Win this thing, Ernie.

Come on!” And when a fan waiting in the crosswalk on the 17th

fairway jokingly asked if he could get a picture, Els obliged.

“He was pretty low-key,” Leishman said, “talking about

anything but golf.”

But his friends know the real score – for Els, it’s all about

golf.

“He’s hitting it pretty good,” Leishman said. “He’ll be hard

to beat.”