Penultimate Playoffs Sunday looms large for Els, Johnson

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Getting in contention Sunday would be great, but Ernie Els really covets top-5 Playoffs status leaving Cog Hill.
September 11, 2010
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LEMONT, Ill. -- Ernie Els held down the top spot in the FedExCup standings for 22 weeks, which was nearly two-thirds of the regular season.

But after a September swoon that was particularly ill-timed since points during the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup are worth five times more, the affable South African has tumbled down to seventh.

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Els is still a lock for THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola in two weeks. But if he wants to go into the Playoffs finale ranked among the top five -- the players who know they can win the FedExCup with a win at East Lake -- he has some work to do Sunday in the final round of the BMW Championship.

After a double bogey on the 18th hole Saturday, Els is tied for fifth and three strokes off the lead. According to the PGA TOUR's FedExCup gurus, though, Els needs to finish third or better to move back into the top five.

"I know what I've got to do," Els said. "I've got to play better, which I'm starting to do now, and I'm trying to get into the top five by the end of this tournament heading into the TOUR Championship, and that's actually my goal. I'd like to play a really good round tomorrow, maybe hopefully be in contention, and hope for the best, really."

Dustin Johnson fell even farther in the FedExCup standings than Els when he tied for 57th at the Deutsche Bank Championship. He started went to TPC Boston that week in sixth place and came to Cog Hill ranked 16th.

Like Els, though, Johnson has a chance to work his way into the top five. He'll enter the final round tied for second, one stroke behind Ryan Moore, who will be his playing partner in the final group of Sunday's final round.

According to the same FedExCup projections, Johnson needs to finish second or higher to stake out his spot in the top five. He actually had moved up to fifth after shooting 68 in the third round, but is still 18 holes away.

"It doesn't matter," Johnson said firmly. "It doesn't matter until I'm done tomorrow."

Just getting to East Lake for THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola is big. Players who do are assured of spots in the following year's Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, as well as the World Golf Championships-CA Championship and other invitationals.

But starting THE TOUR Championship among the top five in the standings gives a player the best chance at winning the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus. Win THE TOUR Championship and the silver Tiffany trophy is yours along with the abundant bounty for the bank account -- regardless of what any of the other 29 players should do.

Els makes long birdie on No. 8

Ernie Els holes a 30-foot putt at the par-4 8th for a birdie during the third round of the BMW Championship.

"Obviously it's a big, big deal," Johnson said. "You get in the top five and you win THE TOUR Championship and you win the FedEx. I know I'm close, especially if I can win tomorrow, it will definitely put me in the top five. So that's obviously a goal -- to get into the top five going into THE TOUR Championship would be huge."

In reality, there are only two spots up for grabs Sunday in the all-important top five. Matt Kuchar's win at The Barclays and Charley Hoffman's victory Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship have virtually made them untouchable. And third-ranked Steve Stricker, who is currently tied for 14th, only needs to finish 65th or higher to retain his spot.

But the drama that unfolds Sunday will have a lot to say about whether the two players currently ranked fourth and fifth -- Jason Day and Luke Donald -- remain among the players who control their own destiny at East Lake.

At the end of the third round, both Day and Donald had fallen out, replaced by Moore and Johnson. Els had actually dropped a spot but the man who already has won twice on the PGA TOUR this year doesn't have as much ground to make up.

Els had been a model of consistency through his first 14 events of the season, finishing 12th or better in half of those events. In 21 rounds since he finished third at the U.S. Open, though, he's only once shot lower than the 67 he posted Saturday at Cog Hill. His best finish in the Playoffs has been a tie for 30th at TPC Boston.

"Absolutely, my form did have a bit of a slide," Els said. "I'm not sure what it was. Maybe it was just too much golf in Europe. ... I probably played a bit too much and kind of didn't have it. It's been quite a battle to get it back."

Els was solid in all phases on Saturday, though -- hitting nine fairways and 14 greens while using just 28 putts. He said he felt his game coming around last week and it's continued to build at Cog Hill.

"I'd like to keep this going," Els said. "At least I made a bit of a move. ... Sometimes it just takes a bit more time than you think on technical little changes that I've been making in my swing, so it's starting to come through now."

Johnson made a big move of his own when he birdied five straight holes, starting at No. 7, on the way to a 68 Saturday. He nearly holed a wedge at the 10th hole, tapping in from 10 inches, while the other birdie putts came from 14, 13, 9 and 7 feet.

The big-hitting 26-year-old, who will be one of five rookies on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this year. He had a shot to win two majors, too -- squandering a three-stroke lead in the first two holes on Sunday at the U.S. Open and missing the playoff at the PGA after being penalized two strokes for grounding his club in an ill-defined bunker on the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits.

Johnson said the outpouring of support -- particularly after the PGA -- has been heartwarming. He says he hears someone yell "that wasn't a bunker" on nearly every hole he plays. He's already moved on, though, and Sunday offers another opportunity to put what happened last month in the past.

"I try to always look forward," Johnson said. "You can't really change what's happened in the past. I've got a lot of other things to focus on, like tomorrow, I've got a big day tomorrow.

"I'm in the same situation again and need to come out and have a good day."

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