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Posted Feb 21, 2012, 9:32 am
Ernie Els has seen better days.
The lanky South African never finished a tournament above 52nd place last year, the same year he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. For the first time in his career, he came within a hair’s breadth of not qualifying for the Accenture Match Play Championship. Ranked No. 65 in the world, Els got in only because Phil Mickelson decided to instead take a spring break vacation with his family.
It’s a far cry from Els’ constant presence a decade ago among the top 10 in the golf rankings. He topped out at No. 1 three times in the late 1990s and is one of just 15 golfers to ever be No. 1. In the run-up to Accenture, Els was watching closely as the rankings shifted week to week.
“I kind of knew the situation. It’s kind of funny now that I’m on the outside, almost looking in, you know. You start reading the fine print, which I never used to do,” he said Monday after a practice round at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Marana.
Els will face defending champion Luke Donald in the first round of the tournament, which starts Wednesday. Donald, in contrast to Els, is coming off a career-changing year. He won twice in the U.S. and twice in Europe and led the money list for both tours. He was the PGA player of the year.
Nonetheless, Els is not intimidated by one of the most consistent golfers on the Tour – or at least isn’t saying it if he is.
“It’s 18 holes, you know? It’s not like I’m the worst match player in thew world, either,” he said. “So I think I know what I need to do. You’ve got to keep the ball in play. You’ve got to keep it in play on every single hole, because he’s going to be in on every single hole.”
Fellow South African George Coetzee, who got into Accenture when world No. 23 Paul Casey bowed out with an off-season shoulder injury, is likewise not cowering at facing Rory McIlroy, who is ranked No. 3.
“It doesn’t matter who you play. I think this week it’s a question of playing your best. If you’re not, you’re going home,” he said.
The golf course opened Monday with practice rounds. Tickets are available at Fry’s and Costco stores in metro Tucson or via the PGATour.com.
The tournament includes 62 of the top 64 players in the World Golf Rankings as of Feb. 13. Two changes will help fans this year, said tournament director Gerald Goodman, who came on board shortly after last year’s tournament.
Parking is much closer than previous years (it was a 30 minute bus ordeal from the parking lot to the course), and in Sunday’s final round fans will be able to do something the PGA Tour hasn’t allowed in decades – follow golfers down the fairways inside the ropes. The access makes for a more intimate look at the final, Goodman said.
“You can almost hear the golfer talking to the caddy,” he said.