Ernie Els has had a Hall of Fame career, which includes 18 PGA TOUR titles – two of which came here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard – and three major championships, not to mention 44 more victories around the world. Els will be officially inducted into World Golf Hall of Fame in May, but that doesn’t mean he’s done building on his resume.
Els is the defending champion this week here at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge for the 33rd annual tournament, and at age 40 he is working just as hard as ever to get his game in shape for conquering the Championship Course and a stellar field of 120 players. Hall of Fame or not, he’s as ambitious as ever, and he’s still looking ahead.
“I've really been concentrating to try and get my game back in shape a little bit. But I have let my mind go towards the Hall of Fame,” Els admitted Tuesday during a press conference. “But I’m working on things -- swing, posture, things I just talked about now. It feels quite good. I had a couple of good rounds in Miami, but I need to really convert those putts, and I'm working on that. It's really starting to feel good now. And, hopefully, I can time it just right this time. Last year, I had quite a lot of game coming in here, and I need to have a couple of good weeks.
“The game is kind of becoming a little bit more fun, the game, for me,” he added. “I would just like to put four rounds together now.”
Last year’s tournament, which extended into Monday because of a bout of inclement weather, turned out to be one of the most satisfying wins of Els’ long career. It also happened to be one of the most difficult.
Els scratched out a two-stroke victory over Edoardo Molinari and Kevin Na thanks to a closing 1-under-par 71 that gave him an 11-under 277 total. But what at one point looked to be a cakewalk ended up being a true test of nerves and talent for the big South African. A late afternoon thunderstorm interrupted the final round, and it struck just after Els let a five-shot lead slip to just two with a double bogey and bogey at 13 and 14, respectively. He had four holes remaining in the first Monday finish at Bay Hill since 1982. A series of clutch par saves preserved his second straight victory.
“It was a very special win,” said Els, who also won the 1998 title at Bay Hill, but had missed the tournament in 2008-09. “To do that on this TOUR now and after 40 was really special.”
When Els won in 1998, by four shots over Bob Estes and Jeff Maggert, that tournament also was plagued by rain and forced a 36-hole final day. The victory helped elevate him to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I enjoyed that one a lot better. That wasn't as much hard work like I gave myself last year.”
This year’s tournament will be a different kind of challenge, with a field that includes six-time champion Tiger Woods and a golf course that could be every bit of a major championship-like test with a forecast for dry and hot weather. As a South African, Els doesn’t mind the heat, however, be it emitted by weather or pressure.
“Hey, bring it on,” Els said. “To play in heat will be great. The golf course will change; it will play a lot firmer.
“I'm excited to come here,” he added. “Coming to Arnold's place and play; I missed out on a couple of years there but I was glad I came back last year obviously. Heard about the changes they made last year and I think that's why I came back, and really enjoyed it obviously. Quite a hard‑fought victory at the end, getting to Monday and sleeping on a very tiny lead but got the job done in the end. I'm excited to come here. We have got a great field. We are going to have great weather. So I think with Tiger in the field again, I see Phil is playing, we have got some really great players here, so it should be a great week.”