Commentary

Els makes major changes in hopes of big season

Originally Published: January 14, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

How good is K.J. Choi?

That's not a rhetorical question. After a wire-to-wire 3-stroke victory at this week's Sony Open, Choi now must be ranked -- either officially or informally -- among the game's best players, vaulting into the world's top 10 and proving himself to be a worthy contender on any course.

Perhaps no statistic better shows his place among the game's elite than the following: Entering the 2008 season, only five players had won PGA Tour events in at least three straight seasons -- Tiger Woods (12 consecutive years with a win), Vijay Singh (six), Phil Mickelson (four), Jim Furyk (three) and … you got it, Choi (three). Now Choi has the upper hand on the remaining quartet, the first to extend his streak this season.

Meanwhile, Ernie Els hasn't won a PGA Tour title in any of the past three seasons. The Weekly 18 begins with his quest to snap that unfortunate streak.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
Warren Little/Getty ImagesEls won't make his 2008 U.S. debut until the last week of February at the Honda Classic.

1. Easy does it
Even though his five career Sony Open appearances included two victories and three other top-five finishes, Ernie Els was conspicuously absent from this week's tournament. He won't compete at the next PGA Tour stop, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, either. Or the next one. Or the next one. Or the three after that.

Don't get the wrong idea. Els isn't retiring, he's rethinking. At 38 and without a victory on U.S. soil since 2004, the Big Easy is showing a renewed commitment to the major championships, which means a decrease in his previously grueling international schedule and a focus on preparation entering each of the four big events.

"The biggest single goal that I have left in this game is to win the career Grand Slam -- to win all four majors at least once -- before I'm done," Els said via his personal Web site this week. "It's important I do everything in my power to make that goal achievable."

He's only halfway home. A winner of the U.S. Open (twice) and British Open, he still needs titles at the bookend majors (Masters and PGA) to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods among the only men to claim such a feat in the modern era. Hence some unusual scheduling quirks for Els, who will compete in the Houston Open, Stanford St. Jude Championship, Scottish Open and (of course) WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- all events that directly precede majors.

"This reflects my desire to try to gear my game around the majors and the other big tournaments," said Els, who has competed only once before in the Houston- and Memphis-based events. "To be honest, I think there were maybe times in the past when I've tried to please too many people. Not now. I'm 38, and I need to think about me and how I can give myself the best chance to add to the three majors that I've already won."

Els won't tee it up on this continent until the last week in February, when the Honda Classic begins a run of four consecutive Florida-based appearances, and his schedule reveals some tourneys mind-boggling for their inclusion (uh, the Indian Masters?) and others shocking in their absence (no Match Play or Memorial?). But it's tough to criticize the man known as the Big Easy for changing his course of action so as to fulfill his prioritized goals. After all, it was a little more than a year ago when he proclaimed that surpassing Woods as the world's No. 1-ranked player was tops on the list.

"So, where are we at?" asked Els, who is ranked fourth in the world. "Well, I've improved my ranking. But to be honest, 2007 didn't go as well as I had originally hoped or anticipated. Despite some of the disappointments during the last 12 months, I do still feel that I have made some significant improvements.

"Let's get serious. I have got two years left of my original plan. I have got to start winning tournaments … fast! And I need to win big tournaments and start increasing my World Ranking points average. If I can make a fast start to the season, I believe second place is soon within my grasp. I need to get there and then step it up again."

There is no doubt this is an important year for Els. With 44 international victories and 15 on the PGA Tour, you could split him in half and still have two Hall of Fame careers, but there is still a stigma that says he has underachieved over the years.

It's one he hopes to disprove -- and it all begins with the brand-new schedule.

"I love this time of the year; there's so much to look forward to, so much cause for optimism," Els said. "The way I've always seen it is this: A fresh start brings with it the possibility that … well, anything is possible, basically. Dream big … and who knows?"

2. Fab finisher
Based on the aforementioned stat regarding Choi's victories in four straight seasons, we already know he's a consistent champion. Well, he's also a finisher. Choi has held the 54-hole lead on five occasions -- at the 2002 Zurich Classic, 2002 PODS Championship, 2005 Wyndham Championship, 2006 PODS Championship and 2008 Sony Open -- and has won every single time. What does that mean? Well, at some point, we're bound to see Choi's name atop a major championship leaderboard on Saturday evening. Knowing what we do about his propensity for closing out wins, don't be surprised if he remains there 24 hours later.

3. Turn of the screw
We were thinking of what to say about the PGA Tour's new rule that players can make the cut and still not play the final 36 holes when we received a text message from one of those who was affected at the Sony: "Write an article on how the new cut rule screws the little guy." It's true. This player and 17 others technically made the cut, earning $9,699, but didn't have the option of improving their standing over the weekend. The rule states that if the number of top-70 finishers and ties reaches 78 or more, the field should be dropped to the closest number to 70. Of course, it doesn't just screw the little guy; it screws the really, really big guy, too. John Daly was among those who took an MDF at the Sony, later saying it was a "stupid rule." (MDF apparently stands for "Making Daly Furious.") We couldn't agree more. So why was it introduced in the first place? To avoid 5½-hour rounds and threesome playing groups in the weekend rounds. Expect this to be a major topic of interest as the season continues. (We'll have more on this subject Monday, as Bob Harig pens a column and we discuss the rule in Alternate Shot.)

4. Cut it out
We know what you're thinking: Who cares about players on the cut line who have no chance of contending over the weekend anyway? Well, let us explain. In recent years, Chris Couch (2006 Zurich Classic), Brad Faxon (2005 Buick Championship) and Jose Maria Olazabal (2002 Buick Invitational) each made the cut on the number before getting hot over the weekend and claiming a title. So, although chances are low that Daly would have come from 11 shots back to earn his first victory in four years this past week, we'll never know whether he could have accomplished the feat because of this new rule. Now who cares about it, huh?

5. Double trouble
Whether it's too much celebratory pineapple or that taxing flight from Maui to Oahu, recent Mercedes-Benz champions don't have a very good track record at Waialae. Check out these results from the past 10 years, courtesy of ESPN's crack research department:

Sony Open results for Mercedes-Benz champions (since 1999)
Year Player Sony Open result
2008 Daniel Chopra T-32
2007 Vijay Singh T-34
2006 Stuart Appleby T-7
2005 Stuart Appleby DNP
2004 Stuart Appleby MC
2003 Ernie Els Won
2002 Sergio Garcia T-40
2001 Jim Furyk T-14
2000 Tiger Woods DNP
1999 David Duval DNP

Daniel Chopra became another Kapalua king to follow up with a mediocre result, shooting 66-71-68-73 to finish T-32 at the Sony. Expect him to have plenty more top finishes on tour this season, though. Chopra has started either 33 or 34 events in each of the past four seasons, the most starts of anyone in that span.

6. Home game
He didn't win the Sony, but no player other than Choi was happier with his performance than Parker McLachlin. A Honolulu native who used to clean the Waialae CC pro shop and men's locker room as a teen, McLachlin was 4-over-par through his opening six holes on Friday, then made the playing cut on the number and shot 65-70 on the weekend to finish T-10 -- just his second career top-10 result. And he'll be able to build on that momentum. McLachlin wasn't originally going to play the upcoming Bob Hope Classic, but as a last-minute addition to last week's Mercedes-Benz Championship pro-am, he was paired with Hope host George Lopez, who persuaded him to make the trip. He'll now head to the mainland with plenty of confidence.

7. Wilk under pressure?
What do we know about Tim Wilkinson, a rookie who was in solo second after just three rounds at the Sony? Before Sunday's play, we had to check back to our post-Q-school notes and see what we said about him after he earned the promotion: "The latest in a long line of Kiwis to reach the PGA Tour, Wilkinson is fresh off a successful Nationwide Tour season that saw him reach the weekend in 23 of 26 starts, including 12 top-25 finishes." Well, the southpaw pulled a top-25 finish in his first start of the season, but it was hardly the way he would have liked. After a third-round 8-under 62, Wilkinson was 16 strokes worse Sunday, dropping to exactly T-25 by the time it was over -- 11 strokes behind his final group playing partner Choi.

8. Wie bit better
At last year's Sony, Steve Marino opened with rounds of 68-71 in front of a few thousand onlookers each day, en route to a T-34 result. This year, he shot 65-67-68-72 to finish T-4 … albeit with much less fanfare. What was the difference? In 2007, Marino was grouped with Michelle Wie (and Gavin Coles) for the first two days, a mere rookie filling space in between the shots of Hawaii's favorite native daughter.

9. Yo, Holmes
Could a T-17 finish at the Sony be a sign of things to come for J.B. Holmes? After earning Q-school medalist honors in 2005 and winning early in his rookie season, Holmes suffered a sophomore slump last year, making the cut in only half of his two dozen appearances. This week, he put himself into contention before sliding off the pace with a final-round 73. One thing that's never lacking in Holmes' game? The long ball. He led the field this week with an average driving distance of … drumroll, please … 335.9 yards. That's more than 40 yards longer than the field average. Wow.

10. Not Vijay's day
Much of Singh's $54 million in career PGA Tour earnings is thanks to his 31 victories, but the big Fijian has amassed a small fortune by shooting low final-round scores when already seemingly out of the running. Singh has made a living by leaping double-digit places on leaderboards, enjoying backdoor top-10 finishes that result in six-figure payouts. After shooting respectable scores of 70-68-69 to start Sunday's round in a share of 41st place, it wasn't unreasonable to expect him to post, say, a 66 while making a major move on the field. Instead, Singh uncharacteristically started bogey, double-bogey, then posted a pair of pars before adding two more bogeys on Nos. 5 and 6. The final tally? A 3-over 73 that left Vijay worse off at the end of the day; he finished T-45.

11. Crazy Day
Two months ago, cocksure PGA Tour rookie Jason Day, a 20-year-old Aussie, proclaimed he was ready to challenge Woods, saying, "I'm sure I can take him down." Well, good thing for him, Woods wasn't in the field at the Sony. Coming off a wrist injury dating back to late last season, Day played a schizophrenic opening two rounds, shooting 73-70 to miss the cut by 3 strokes. Although he was 3-over-par for 36 holes, the performance was anything but boring. Day carded an eagle, nine birdies, 10 bogeys, two double-bogeys … and just 14 pars. He isn't competing at this week's Bob Hope Classic.

12. First down
There were a few dozen rookies in the Sony field this week, but only four were making their PGA Tour debuts. David Lutterus and Travis Perkins (Q-school grads), and Michael Letzig and Marc Turnesa (Nationwide Tour grads) each competed in the first career event in the big leagues. And now they all have one more thing in common, too: All four players missed the cut.

13. Young and restless
Say what you will about the struggles of turned-pro-too-soon teens such as Wie and Ty Tryon, but going pay-for-play early is a continuing trend. Tadd Fujikawa's decision to become a professional at 16 last year became a hot-button topic at this week's Sony, where he missed the cut for the ninth time in nine starts (on five tours) since eschewing amateur status. This week, Japanese phenom Ryo Ishikawa, 16, also turned pro, making this modest claim: "I want to play with Tiger Woods in the future and win the Masters." Although many pundits are up in arms about young players growing up so quickly, this pattern still pales in comparison to that of other individual sports, such as tennis, in which it's commonplace for young amateur players to jump at the chance to earn a paycheck. Then again, this is hardly a new notion in golf. As Golf World's Bill Fields pointed out a few months back, an unassuming 15-year-old German did the same thing 35 years ago. Bernhard Langer is now a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

14. Welcome aboard (and abroad)
Among those who will be making the move from the European Tour to the PGA Tour this year are Paul Casey and Andres Romero (neither of whom has played yet -- and they won't this week, either), and Kenneth Ferrie, whose initial performance resulted in a WD after contracting food poisoning. Meanwhile, Henrik Stenson has renounced his membership to the U.S. tour, opting instead to focus on playing abroad in hopes of reaching the European Ryder Cup team again.

15. On the upswing …
We're a week late on this perhaps, but it's worth noting which players took the biggest leap in the Official World Golf Ranking in the 2007 calendar year. And the winner is … Steve Stricker, who owned a net gain of 173.99 points, moving from 63rd in the world to fifth by year's end. He was followed on the list by Justin Rose, Rory Sabbatini, Aaron Baddeley and Choi. Other noteworthy names were just behind, as Mickelson had the eighth-largest points gain (98.32) and moved from third to second, and Els was -- surprisingly enough -- 10th on the list, increasing his standing from fifth to fourth.

16. … and the downswing
If we're going to list the players who made the greatest leaps, we'd be remiss if we didn't also name those who took the largest tumble last season, as well. And the loser is … David Howell, who had a net loss of 160.38 points, dropping from 14th in the world to 165th by year's end. He was followed on the list by Furyk (who lost 155.48 points in dropping from second to third), Retief Goosen, Michael Campbell and Olazabal. They were closely followed by Colin Montgomerie, with the sixth-biggest points loss (he dropped from 17th to 57th), Davis Love III (16th to 67th), Chris DiMarco (20th to 79th) and Adam Scott (sixth to seventh).

17. Call it a comeback
Chris Perry, 46, who is still a tour member based on a Major Medical Extension dating back to 2001 (elbow, wrist and hand injuries) apparently will try to make a comeback this season. The son of ex-big league pitcher Jim and nephew of Hall of Famer Gaylord has 18 events to earn $515,445, equaling the No. 125 money winner from 2002. If he is successful, he will become a full-timer for the remainder of the season. Since injuring himself at the 2001 British Open, Perry has competed in 18 PGA Tour events but has yet to make a cut.

18. Quote of the week
"I'm going to let people be the judge of my performance."
-- Rory Sabbatini, during a post-final-round news conference, seven days after he said he no longer would be speaking with the media.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.