Els still puttering around the greens
DUBLIN, Ohio -- They are not into reminiscing much, but then again, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els have seen a good bit of each other lately. They were grouped together during the first two rounds of last month's Players Championship, and again here at the Memorial.
And it got them to discussing the good ol' days, when Els would often be in close pursuit of Woods -- while serving as a reminder of the woes that have been troubling the Big Easy.
"It's funny. I was speaking to Tiger -- he's like, 'We've been playing against each other for such a long time,'" Els said Friday at Muirfield Village Golf Club. "And I was like, 'Yeah, I used to give you a good go when I used to putt.'"
Els was once again lamenting his inability to get the ball in the hole on a day when he shot 2-under-par 70 and finished three shots behind the leaders.
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He rattled off the putts he missed on his front nine, putts that easily could have turned his round into something spectacular, putts that have not been going in for the better part of the past year.
Although he holed a bunker shot at the last hole for a birdie, the 70 was probably the worst Els could have done. And that has been the story for the three-time major champion who has just one victory on the PGA Tour since winning here in 2004.
For a player who has won some 60 times around the world, the putting problems are particularly bothersome.
"Especially when you've been a good putter for most of your career," said Els, who will turn 40 in October. "All of a sudden, it's like, 'Man, what's going on? I'm not making these putts anymore.' Normally when you make a certain putt, from there the momentum comes. It's almost like the back nine today [where Els made three birdies]. I haven't done that for the past year or so.
"It's very frustrating. It's something I had to learn to cope with, to be honest with you. As my career has progressed, I've never had to deal with stuff like that. Now I have to deal with it."
Els ranks 122nd on the PGA Tour in putting average and was 127th last year. In 2004, he was ninth and was no worse than 45th in the following three.
Making matters more difficult this year is the fact Els appears to be hitting the ball so well. His driving accuracy percentage ranks 58th on the PGA Tour, the only time he has ranked in the top 100 in the past seven years. He's also 35th in greens in regulation. If anything, his ballstriking has improved while his short game has suffered.
One way he is trying to cope is by going back to an old putter … sort of. Els had Callaway make him a putter that is nearly identical to the one he used more than a decade ago. The metal is different, the feel off the clubface is different. "I looked at some old tape from when I was playing well in the '90s and I was in my 20s," he said. Everything down to the shaft and the grip is the same.
And using this new putter has given Els a lift, even if the putts have yet to start dropping.
"I was dreading getting on the greens, knowing that I couldn't make it," he said. "[Today], the front nine could have easily been 4 or 5 under. But I kept my patience for once. I didn't get away from myself. … I'm just giving it some time to fall into place."
No doubt, Els could have easily lost it Friday. Starting on the back nine, he missed birdie putts at the 11th hole from 12 feet, the 13th from 6, the 14th from 8, the 15th from 8, the 16th from 13 and the 18th from 7. He made all pars when he could have -- should have -- had at least a couple of birdies. In two days, he has missed five putts from the 4- to 8-foot range.
Those kinds of misses can often lead a player to put even more pressure on his long game.
As the putts fail to drop, the mindset often leads to trying to hit the ball even closer.
"No, there is a certain process I go through all the time. I try to stick to that certain process. I don't think I've wavered from that," Els said. "[But] I have gotten very frustrated, very frustrated. There are times where I'm like, '[Screw] it.' It takes me three holes to get back to the golf course. That's where I've been fighting to stay in it. You keep missing it and everybody else is making them."
Els has had plenty to deal with in recent years. He has never been the same since coming close to winning all four major championships in 2004 but not capturing any of them. Els lost on 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.
The following year, 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, and only once on the PGA Tour.
Then Els and his wife Liezl have had to cope with their 6-year-old son Ben's autism, an affliction they announced last year.
Meanwhile, Els continues to fight his putter, even though now he has one he likes.
"Although I didn't make any, I'm working on something that I believe is right," he said.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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