Commentary

Ernie Els finding a way to win

Updated: February 22, 2014, 8:21 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

MARANA, Ariz. -- It is among the beautiful yet brutal aspects to match play, an oft-cited cliché that typically causes the eyes to roll but has plenty of validity: you can advance despite poor golf and go home after playing excellent golf.

Case in point: Ernie Els.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
Stan Badz/PGA TOUR/Getty ImagesSouth Africa's Ernie Els, 44, will take on a golfer 21 years his junior, France's Victor Dubuisson, in Sunday's semifinal match at the WGC-Match Play. The 23-year-old Frenchman is currently ranked No. 30 in the world while Els is 34th.

The four-time major champion probably has no business still being at Dove Mountain, and would likely be the first to admit it if it weren't for the fact that he knows exactly how this type of tournament works. He has seen it too many times to not know better.

The Big Easy has made it look anything but through four days of the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Of the eight players who made it to the quarterfinals on Saturday, Els was the only one whose stroke-play score added up to over par.

In fact, Els was 5 over, and each of the other seven players was under par.

Of course, none of that matters in this format, which is why Els finds himself with a Sunday morning semifinal tee time after dispatching phenom Jordan Spieth, 4&2.

Spieth's run ended because he was over par, making three bogeys on the back nine; for the first time, Els played in under par.

"At times I haven't played my best," Els said. "But it is match play. It's a match play event and I've just done enough to get through. Today I felt like I played a little bit more solid, but still not quite to my expectations."

Now he's one day and approximately 36 holes away from winning this World Golf Championship event for the first time.

And to do so, he'll have to get past a couple of 20-something golfers, all of whom are young enough to be his sons.

France's Victor Dubuisson, 23, prevailed 1 up over Graeme McDowell to earn a spot against Els, 44. The other semifinalists are Jason Day, 26 -- who defeated former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, 2&1; and Rickie Fowler, 25, who was a 1 up winner over Jim Furyk.

The semifinals are Sunday morning, followed by an 18-hole afternoon final match.

To even get this far, Els had to beat the youngest player in the field, Spieth, 20, who a year ago at this time had yet to earn status on the PGA Tour. He's since won a PGA Tour event, played on the U.S. Presidents Cup team, and seemingly been a factor every week he plays.

None of it is lost on Els.

"It's amazing. There's quite a few guys like that on tour," Els said. "Louis Oosthuizen [who lost to Day] comes to mind. I've known him since he was a child coming through our foundation in South Africa. Even Tiger [Woods]. I knew Tiger when he was 15 years old.

"It's funny, now we've got to compete against each other on a level playing field. And that's the fantastic thing about golf. At 44, you're out of most professional sports. Here I am still playing and competing against the youngsters, so it's quite amazing. It's a nice job to have sometimes."

Before anyone forgets, Els is less than two years removed from winning the Open Championship at Royal Lytham. And he won the BMW International Open last year in Germany on the European Tour. He is ranked 34th in the world.

But it's been a slow start this year due to an equipment change. Els finished 37th in Qatar, missed the cut in Dubai in consecutive European Tour starts, then was 35th in his first PGA Tour event last week.

In the offseason, Els made the switch to Adams Golf from Callaway, and there has been an understandable adjustment period. That's why the scores were over par for the first three days before finally finding some form Saturday.

And his experience against Spieth didn't hurt, either.

"As you get older, obviously your nerves are not as good as in your 20s," said Els, who 20 years ago -- less than a year after Spieth was born -- won his first U.S. Open. "But [I] feel I've still got length. The new technology has really benefitted my game. I've still got a bit of swing speed, so I get the ball out there. Not as far as Dustin [Johnson] or Bubba [Watson], but I can hit it with Jordan and these types of players.

"And experience definitely helped, all my rounds this week. I played young guys the whole week. And I could almost feel their frustration. I could almost sense the frustration in Jordan today that he wasn't quite playing the way he did yesterday. And I was kind of playing on that a little bit."

Spieth admitted as much, and perhaps learned a valuable lesson.

"I was a little mental midget out there," he said. "Actually kind of embarrassing looking back. I was dropping clubs and kind of just whining to [his caddie], and you just can't do that. In match play, you've got to keep your cool.

"Anytime you show that, it's a weakness, and Ernie can take advantage of it. He's a consistent player, putted very well today, made a lot of putts. I knew he would have a good round, because he's coming off kind of squeaking by."

And that's the key at match play.

Amazingly, this is the first time Els has made it to the semifinals of this tournament since 2001, when the event was played in Australia. He lost there to a Swede named Pierre Fulke.

For some reason, there has been tons of frustration in this event. And yet, Els won the old World Match Play Championship at Wentworth (the matches were 36 holes) seven times.

"I've really had a love-hate relationship with this event," said Els, who six times has been bounced in the first round, and five more times in the second. "I was lucky enough to get in the field a couple of years ago and beat Luke Donald in the first round. But most of the time, I lost in the first round here on either the 18th or 19th hole.

"It's been a frustrating time in this event."

Perhaps one more day at Dove Mountain changes all of that.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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