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Saturday, August 15, 2009
Els needs to find his flatstick at PGA

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

CHASKA, Minn. -- Ernie Els gritted his teeth, bit his lip, did all those things you do when it takes all kinds of willpower to keep from doing something you don't want to do, or from saying something you don't want to say.

He had just bogeyed the final three holes at Hazeltine National on Saturday afternoon to ruin a great round, one in which he pulled within a shot of the lead then slumped back to 5 strokes behind entering the final 18 holes of the PGA Championship.

Ernie Els
Ernie Els had a solid round going Saturday at Hazeltine, until he finished bogey-bogey-bogey to shoot 2-under-par 70.

After signing his scorecard for a 70 that could have been so much better, Els took a few minutes to cool off in the scoring trailer, then emerged to the waiting masses. Sky Sports wanted to talk to him, as did XM Radio, then print reporters.

The Big Easy would have rather chewed off and swallowed those microphones than talk about what had just transpired. Els, steam emitting from his ears, nonetheless obliged.

"All kind of fell apart on me at the end there," he said.

Els tried to put up a brave front, take the good from a round that saw him make six birdies. He talked about how beautifully he is hitting the ball and that he's been playing well for a long time, but the putter remains his nemesis.

The slump with the short stick has lasted nearly two years, and Els admits it drives him to the brink of inflicting physical harm.

"I've gotten done with a round and I just want to break things, basically," he said. "For me, mentally, that's the hardest part to deal with. I feel like I'm hitting it as good as some of the good players out there, but I'm not getting my reward."

And Els, 39, has sought solutions. The three-time major champion from South Africa, who has won more than 60 times around the world, switched to a Callaway putter that has been made to look and feel like an old model he used when having success in the 1990s.

The switch has given him hope, even if the ball is not disappearing. He ranks 157th on the PGA Tour this year in putting.

And there are, of course, other issues at play. He has never been the same since coming close to winning all four major championships in 2004 and not capturing any of them. Els lost to an 18th hole birdie by Phil Mickelson at the Masters, played in the final twosome at the U.S. Open, lost in a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open, and missed a playoff by a stroke at the PGA Championship that year.

Els has also suffered the most at the hands of Woods, finishing second to him five times, a number matched only by Vijay Singh on the PGA Tour. Els has also been runner-up to Woods twice in international events.

In 2005, Els suffered a knee injury in a water sports accident that required the same type of ACL reconstruction that Woods endured last summer. Since then, Els has won just four times worldwide, just once on the PGA Tour.

That victory came at last year's Honda Classic, and the following week, Els and his wife, Liezl, announced that their 6-year-old son Ben has autism. Talking about it seems to give Els some relief, and he has been forthcoming about doing so, hoping to raise awareness for the affliction.

But since that time, his game has suffered as he has tumbled to 26th in the world rankings. Els has four top-10 finishes this year on the PGA Tour, but has not seriously contended for a title.

That appeared to change Saturday, when he made a nice run to get into contention. Els birdied the seventh and ninth holes to get to 3 under par, then made two more at the 11th and 12th, where he chipped in from off the green and had the crowd on his side.

Instead of Woods cruising to his 15th major championship, there was suddenly a compelling competition.

"I could definitely feel that," he said. "You could feel that there's a championship going on around you. It's not like a runaway deal. Looked like a runaway thing at the end of yesterday [when Woods held a 4-stroke lead]. But it looks like the guys are really set to give Tiger a go and the crowd could sense that."

Els added another birdie at the par-5 15th to get to 5 under par on his round, 6 under for the tournament and just a stroke behind Woods, who was early on the back nine.

Then he ran into trouble at the par-4 16th, where he played safe, hit a poor chip shot to the green and failed to convert the par putt. At the par-3 17th, he missed a 3-foot putt for par. And at the par-4 18th, he hit a wayward drive, an approach into a greenside bunker, and failed to get up and down.

Just like that, he had dropped to a tie for sixth place, 5 strokes behind Woods but also with Y.E. Yang, Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson and Lucas Glover in front of him.

And he tried to talk a good game.

"It's not over yet," said Els, whose last major victory was seven years ago at the British Open. "A lot of good things happened. The finish just wasn't great. But I'm not totally out of it. I probably need something like that [Sunday] and obviously got to finish it off."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.