ORLANDO, Fla. -- He came tantalizingly close last week at the Transitions Championship.
But bogeys on his last two holes -- the last thanks to a missed 4-footer -- kept Ernie Els out of a playoff where, if successful, the veteran and World Golf Hall of Famer would have punched his ticket to the Masters.
Now Els, a two-time winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, must either jump 12 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking by Monday or pick up career win No. 19 at Bay Hill or the Shell Houston Open.
The Big Easy will share the spotlight in the first two rounds with some pretty high-profile competition, too, in playing partners Tiger Woods and Hunter Mahan. The threesome tees off No. 10 at 8:26 a.m. ET on Thursday and then takes center stage at 12:56 p.m. ET off No. 1 on Friday.
Between them, Els, Woods and Mahan have played in 14 events this year and finished inside the top-25 on all but three occasions. Mahan has the only victory in 2012, beating Rory McIlroy in the finals of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, but both Els and Woods have contended.
Els' tie for fifth last week at the Transitions Championship -- one stroke out of a four-way playoff won by Luke Donald -- marked his first top-five finish on TOUR since the 2011 Frys.com Open where he shared fourth. But the affable South African has finished 21st or better in his last three starts and his ball-striking is as solid as ever. When the putter cooperates he can compete with anyone.
As if Els' quest to play his way into the Masters for the 19th straight year isn't enough of a draw, there's the ever-improving and always-dangerous Woods.
The former world No. 1 owns a comfort zone at Bay Hill that's even greater than the one Els has. He's won the tournament six times in his last 11 starts, including four straight starting in 2000. Woods' last victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational came in his successful title defense in 2009.
Not to mention, Woods has played 1,044 holes at Bay Hill and is 82 under. He's dominated the par 5s, playing them in 100 under, but Woods is 8 over on the par 3s and 10 over on the par 4s.
In four starts this season, Woods posted one top-10 as he closed with a 62 to tie for second behind McIlroy at The Honda Classic. He ranks first in total driving, as well as in the all-around category, and second in scoring with an average of 68.53.
Woods had to withdraw after 11 holes in the final round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship due to pain in his left Achilles tendon. But he played in the Tavistock Cup on Monday and Tuesday at nearby Lake Nona so the precautions appeared well-taken.
Mahan, like Els, has played five times in 2012 and he has yet to finish outside the top 24 in any of those events.
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His win at Dove Mountain was dominant -- he only saw the 18th hole once, in his first match, and didn't trail over his last 74 holes. Along the way he disposed of Zach Johnson, Y.E. Yang, Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar and Mark Wilson, as well as McIlroy.