Big Easy's 1998 Bay Hill win was catalyst to No. 1 ranking
It was 10 years ago that Ernie Els arrived at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando ranked No. 4 in the world. He left with a victory, and four weeks later, after tying for 16th at the Masters Tournament, he overtook Tiger Woods for the No. 1 spot, a position he held for nine weeks.
As he prepares for his 16th consecutive appearance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, the sweet-swinging South African just happens to be ranked No. 4 on the Official World Golf Ranking as the PGA TOUR reaches the Florida Swing. Could a repeat in the offing? That's exactly what Els has to be aiming towards. The Big Easy is in the midst of a self-proclaimed three-year plan to get back to the top of the mountain. Given the traditional strength of field at Palmer's prestigious event, a victory would be worth a pile of points.
Els once again will be among the favorites when the 30th edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard is held March 10-16. The elite, limited-field event, played on the Palmer-designed Champion Course at Bay Hill, offers a $5.8 million purse and annually features one of the strongest fields in professional golf. Hall of Fame golfer Vijay Singh is the defending champion, joining an esteemed list of past winners including Tiger Woods, who won a record four straight at Bay Hill and last week at the World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship surpassed Palmer on the all-time PGA TOUR victory list with his 63rd career win. Other past champions who could return to the tournament include Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell, Tim Herron, Rod Pampling and Paul Goydos.
Els, 38, a three-time major champion, thus far has had what he calls "a quieter start," to his season after cutting down on his schedule to concentrate more on the major championships and to be fresh for the tournaments in which he does compete. That Bay Hill remains on the schedule is a testament to Palmer and the event he has nurtured into one of the top tournaments in the world of golf. "I've always enjoyed playing at Bay Hill. It's a course that I have felt pretty comfortable on," said Els, who has a home in Orlando. "I do believe the golf course sets up well for my game."
Oddly, however, other than his four-stroke victory over Jeff Maggert and Bob Estes in the 1998 edition, Els has just one other top-10 finish at Bay Hill, a tie for ninth in 2002. His winning 274 total is his best 72-hole score. Last year, he tied for 18th place at 282, two over par on the reconfigured par-70 layout that this year measures more than 7,200 yards.
"I think I can have another good week if I play my game," Els said.
Els' game has undergone somewhat of a makeover. First and foremost, the new schedule, he hopes, will keep him fresher for tournament golf. "There's a lot less traveling. I can stay at home more and work on my game," said Els, who has 15 PGA TOUR victories, including two U.S. Opens and a British Open, and 44 international titles. "I just felt like I needed to make a change for a change. I don't know how long you've been around, but some of the guys (in the media) I've been talking about it for 10 years now, so finally I've done it. I thought I would get a bit of applause or something."
It's also allowed him to get in better shape. Said Els: "I don't want to brag but I think I'm in better shape now than when I was 27, so I think it really works and exactly as you say, keep your flexibility and your strength and it will really prolong your career."
Finally, he's settled on equipment. New Callaway implements, including the new ix ball, the FTi driver and new blade irons that he began using in December, have him brimming with confidence. "I'm really starting to enjoy the equipment now; you know, I'm comfortable, and I think that's a really big deal," he said.
We'll see just how big when Els tees it up again at Bay Hill.
For tickets to the 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard or for more information, log on to the tournament web site, www.arnoldpalmerinvitational.com or call the Bay Hill Club ticket office at
407-876-7774 or toll free at 1-866-764-4843. Tournament proceeds benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.