PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Ernie Els is playing this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. That might not seem to be big news on its surface, but Els hasn’t enjoyed much success in his three previous PGA Tour starts on the Monterey Peninsula.
In 1996, play was canceled after two rounds because of weather, and he missed 54-hole cuts in 2015 and 2018. Add the fact that Els had just spent two weeks competing in European Tour events in the Middle East before flying from Saudi Arabia to Pebble Beach and his appearance here would seem even more dubious. Yet Els not only is excited to be here but he’s eager to be competing again.
“I want to play. I want to test myself,” said Els, who missed the cut last week at the Saudi International, one week after a T-12 in Dubai. “I’ve still got length. I'm hitting it with a lot of the guys. I can't hit it with the super [long] guys, but I can hit it with the normal guys out here, and I feel my strong point is still my iron game. It's still there. My putting's much better. [In Dubai] I was two putts away from finishing third, and I missed a birdie putt on 17 and 18. I can do things still, so that's what I want to believe and keep going. When I get the right course and right conditions, who knows? And that's exciting for me.”
When asked whether he would have made the trip to Pebble Beach last year or the year before after similar results in the Middle East, Els answered emphatically.
“No way. No, no. I don't know what I would be doing.”
By the middle of last year, Els struggled with a game in disarray, much of it because of his painful lower back.
So, Els started working with trainer Dave Armitage near Els’ home in West Palm Beach, Fla., to help get his body and swing back to what it used to be.
Els referred to video, comparing his swing from when he was winning: 47 international victories since 1991, including 19 on the PGA Tour, of which four are major championships. Els decided that he needed to go back to his old game, especially on the backswing, which he thinks will help solve his back issues.
In looking at his swing from more recent years, Els found that his posture was far off. He had been aiming right and getting the club too far back inside and then coming over the top of the ball.
“All the bad stuff,” Els said. “With this new trainer, he got me doing better stuff, more kind of aerobic stuff, more kind of Pilates, yoga kind of stuff. I'm not quite there yet, but I'm on my way.”
Els also made some changes to his putter and putting stroke, moving his hands forward and adding loft to the club, to get the ball rolling better. He professes to be more confident, especially over shorter putts.
The adjustments led to a more positive experience inside the ropes, which Els hopes sets him up not only for a successful 2019 on the PGA Tour but also his future. Els will turn 50 on Oct. 17 and become eligible for the Champions Tour. He anticipates competing mostly against the seniors, with a handful of events on the PGA and European tours.
Els understands that his game is challenged against the next generation of flatbellies who are overtaking the PGA Tour. On the senior tour, Els figures that he has a much better chance to end his six-year winless streak.
“I've always been a winner, but you’ve got to face facts,” he said. “I’ve got a better chance of winning on the Champions Tour than I’ve got a chance of winning over here. I like to have a chance to win, and I think I've earned my right to play the Champions Tour.”
But that’s eight-plus months away. For now, Els is focused on making his first cut in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am – perhaps he can find strength in his runner-up in the 2000 U.S. Open here and a T-3 in the 2010 U.S. Open here – and continuing to invest in his future.
“I want to get myself where I can compete on Sunday afternoons, and that's never changed,” Els said. “When it does change, I'll walk away.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli