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NORTON, Mass. -- There was a time in Ernie Els' career -- quite a long time, in fact -- when any discussion of the world's best professional golfers wouldn't last more than a few seconds without his name being mentioned. Gradually, though, such moments began to fade. His name was brought up less frequently, replaced in those conversations by younger, hungrier, more successful players.
A three-time major champion, the man nicknamed the Big Easy for his effortless maneuver through the ball wasn't finding the game so easy after knee surgery in the summer of 2005. Although he returned to a full schedule the next season, Els enjoyed only a moderate amount of success for a man of his prior accomplishments, making the cut in all 18 PGA Tour starts, but failing to find the winner's circle for only the second time since 1994.
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Ernie Els hasn't visited the winner's circle since early in 2008 when he won the Honda Classic.
Although such a yearlong performance would have many of his peers bubbling over with optimism, it left Els angry, disappointed and regretful. So the world's most notable globe-trotting golfer enacted a plan that would make any Fortune 500 CEO proud.
He developed a mission statement.
"I see 2007 as the start of a three-year plan where I totally rededicate myself to the game," Els wrote on his personal Web site in December 2006. "I want to win more majors and start giving Tiger [Woods] a run for his money. If you look at where he is at the top of the rankings, it's a big lead so no one is going to get near him anytime soon. I've got to give myself a three-year stretch to try to approach him and I really believe I can do it."
If you consult a calendar and the current Official World Golf Ranking, you'll find that Els' three-year plan is nearing completion and far from fruition.
Questioned about that outline Thursday in advance of the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, the gregarious South African laughed for a few seconds before asking, "You still remember that?"
It has been difficult to forget.
Since publicly challenging himself to claim the No. 1 position, Els has won exactly three tournaments worldwide -- a number that pales in comparison to the 18 victories achieved by Woods, who dealt with a knee injury of his own in that period. Els is 20th in the world and 28th on the 2009 PGA Tour money list.
"The last couple of years, I haven't really played to my potential, to where I want to play," said Els, who finished 20th on the final PGA Tour money list in each of the past two seasons. "It's been kind of an awkward couple of years, but I just want to play good, you know, I want to play better. I don't want to be struggling like I did. There's no worse feeling in the world to play at a certain level and then drop off, knowing you can do a lot better and you're not there. It's been quite frustrating."
Although Els doesn't make excuses for himself, he does allow for a few explanations as to why his plan hasn't taken flight fully, including going public with the news that son Ben, 6, has been diagnosed with autism.
"I didn't really realize it was going to be that big a deal," Els said of having to make that announcement. "I've really thrown new energy into this new project that we're busy with. We want to build a nice center for autistic kids down there, basically a school in Florida. So I think that took a bit of time."
He offers that a full-time move from England to Florida has inhibited his success, not to mention attempting to return from the injury that occurred while Els was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea.
"I was very headstrong to come back at a certain date," he said. "When I started traveling, a worldwide schedule right off the bat again -- I went to Dubai, from Dubai I went to California -- and I think that was a bit early to do all that kind of travel again with the knee. But it's good now. It's perfect now. I've got no problem with it."
If anyone knows about the effects of returning from a knee injury, it's Woods, who concluded his 2008 season after winning last year's U.S. Open, then underwent surgery and returned with a five-win campaign so far in 2009.
"It takes time," Woods contended. "Ernie is not a big worker physically, and that's one of the things that you have to do with an ACL repair is you've got to really do a lot of work. I feel pretty good with what I've done, and I think Ernie -- he could have worked a little bit harder."
The work Els has put into his game, though, is finally starting to pay off.
He finished in a share of eighth place at the British Open, then followed with a T-6 at the PGA Championship. Last week, in the opening round of the FedEx Cup playoffs at The Barclays, Els earned his best result of the season, grabbing co-runner-up honors at Liberty National.The main difference in Els' turnaround has come with the flatstick. For the season, he ranks 167th in putts from 5-10 feet, 75th from 10-15 feet, 193rd from 15-20 feet and 193rd from 20-25 feet. Thanks to a longer putter that he put into the bag before last week's tournament, though, he contends he's now more relaxed and less hunched over, which, in turn, has aided his putting stroke. "My putter felt good for a change," he said. "My putting stats have been awful all year, so just nice to make some putts. So that was nice and positive." The confluence of improved putting and continued strong ballstriking is leading to renewed optimism toward his game. And although his priorities might have changed -- from trying to claim the No. 1 ranking in the world to trying to claim a victory -- Els now feels confident in hopes of adding more hardware to the mantel.
"I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but I've had a couple of good weeks now, and I'd like to keep that going," he said. "A win is really on my radar. You know, that's really where I want to be."
At least one player who has witnessed Els' resurgence up close also sees cause for hope.
"I'm not worried about him. I think he'll be just fine," said Nick Watney, who was paired with Els on Sunday when the South African shot a 5-under 66. "He played very well in some tough conditions. I think he'll be back to challenging for some top tournaments here very soon."
Els will reach a turning point in his life, if not his career, next month. The man who first won the U.S. Open at age 24 will turn 40 on Oct. 17, giving him a chance for reflection on having spent half his days as a professional golfer.
"The younger you get [started] out here and the longer you stay out here, the years tick by quickly," he said. "You know, all of a sudden you're 40, and I've been out here almost 20 years on the European Tour and over here. I feel good now. I feel positive. And I feel my game is coming around, so I just want to try and win."
And if he does? Don't expect Els' thirst for success to be quenched by one more trophy. Fact is, he might not rest until those previous priorities are finally realized.
"Hey, if I can keep playing the way I did last week," he said, "maybe the three-year plan can be revived."
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.