Els looks to reignite fast 2020 start at The Ally Challenge
July 30, 2020
By Stewart Moore, PGATOUR.COM
- July 30, 2020
- Els had a strong week at Harbour Town to give him momentum into his PGA TOUR Champions schedule. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The 2020 PGA TOUR Champions season began with one of the most exciting playoffs in Tour history, as Miguel Ángel Jiménez outlasted World Golf Hall of Famers Fred Couples and Ernie Els to win the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai in a thrilling, prime-time finish.
The playoff loss marked Els’ debut on Tour and set in motion an exciting opening stretch of tournaments for the longtime South African great, who broke through for his first post-50 win at the Hoag Classic in early March.
At Hoag, Els showed the dominant form that delivered four major championships throughout his illustrious career. Rounds of 66-64-67—197 (16-under) at Newport Beach Country Club left him two shots clear of a trio of players, including Couples, who was off to one of his best starts in recent memory.
Els jumped to No. 3 in the Charles Schwab Cup with the win – Couples to No. 6 – and was on top of the Champions Tour world, eyeing upcoming events and future opportunities to cement his spot as the Tour’s new young star.
Then, on the evening of Thursday, March 12, everything came to a halt. The PGA TOUR announced the suspension of tournament play due to COVID-19, and golf quickly became an afterthought for fans around the world, with players left wondering when they might compete again.
THE PLAYERS Championship ended after one round; tournaments would not be played for five weeks; and then that suspension of play extended to May 18 before it was determined the second week of June would enable enough time for the PGA TOUR’s health and safety protocols to establish a safe environment for golf to return. It was the definition of an unprecedented world.
“Yeah, it was unfortunate, but it was the same for a lot of people. And we are very fortunate to be able to play professional golf,” said Els on Thursday. “So, it feels like a very long time ago, which it is. It was almost four months ago in California when I won. So, it was really a … I was on a high.”
Thankfully for Els, golf remained open and available to most throughout the early stages of the coronavirus. While he was uncertain of when he might play again, he was certain that he would be ready. The grit and grind that defined his PGA TOUR career was also the foundation of his new Champions Tour career, and Els ventured back south to ensure he was ready when the proverbial bell was rung for play to resume.
“I went back home to Florida, spent most of our time down there. And I played quite a bit of golf – social distancing and all that – stayed corona-free, thank goodness, and played a bit of golf and just tried to stay on the game a little bit,” he said.
When the PGA TOUR launched its Return to Golf at the Charles Schwab Challenge on June 11, a sense of normalcy enshrouded the sports landscape as live competition felt like a giant leap for mankind when it sometimes felt like a pipe dream.
The following week, Els made his own return to golf at the RBC Heritage, where rounds of 67-67—134 put him on the weekend radar before he eventually finished T48.
After the opening round, Els spoke with the media and gave a glimpse into his future plans while alluding to the hot start that setup what could have been – and might still be – a breakout 2020 PGA TOUR Champions campaign.
“I'm not going to play much on the regular TOUR. I'll play most of my golf on the Champions (Tour). I really like it out there. I think I've done what I could out here on the regular TOUR. I will play every now and again if I get in the field on past champions (status) or something like that. I'll play some select events, but mostly on the Champions Tour,” he said. “I haven't won a tournament before I did at the Newport tournament for seven years. So, it was really a nice thrill for me to win a tournament again and definitely gave me a bit of momentum.”
After missing the cut in his second return event at the Memorial Tournament a few weeks ago, Els arrived at this week’s The Ally Challenge presented by McLaren to restart the PGA TOUR Champions season as one of seven Hall of Fame members in the field.
The third-year event is contested at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club in Grand Blanc, Michigan, on a Joe Lee-designed course that hosted the PGA TOUR’s Buick Open for over 50 years. For Els, it was a week he circled quickly on his 2020 schedule.
“I have been looking forward to coming to Warwick Hills for a while now. When I saw it on the calendar, even before I turned 50, I was like, ‘I'm going to go play there,’” said Els during a Thursday press conference. “I had good tournaments here back in the day. But it's always a nice feeling to be familiar with golf courses that you have played. As I say, I haven't been here for many, many years, over 20 years, but I remember how to play it, so hopefully I can do that.”
In four career starts at what locals call the “old Buick Open,” Els notched three top-10 finishes, including a T2 effort in 1997, when he was the 36- and 54-hole leader before falling victim to a Vijay Singh 67 on Sunday to finish four shots back.
“I have a lot of good memories, yeah, from the golf course and from the city. When I came here the last time, I was a young man. I was in my 20s, and now I'm in my 50s,” Els said. “But the golf course really is still very much the same. It's in great condition, so really happy to be back.”
While the term young man can be tough to define, Els was one of the world’s best when he was in fact a young man. Before his 35th birthday, he won 15 times on the PGA TOUR, including three of his four major championships and the World Golf Championships-American Express Championship.
On PGA TOUR Champions, he is once again a young man. As one of 2020’s highly touted rookies, joining the likes of Jim Furyk, Mike Weir and K.J. Choi, Els’ presence has brought a wealth of energy to the Tour, its tournaments and the players who long to compete amongst the best.
For Els, this opportunity to construct the second chapter of his legendary career is both exciting and invigorating. After such a great start to the season, The Ally Challenge provides the blueprint to jumpstart that effort and remind fans everywhere why the “Big Easy” was and continues to be one of the all-time best.