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'Big Easy' Out to Defend Bay Hill Title


Ernie Els is back at Bay Hill this week in search of this third title in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. In addition to edging Italy's Edoardo Molinari and American Kevin Na by two strokes last year, the three-time major winner triumphed at the Orlando event in 1998.

As usual, Palmer's $6 million tournament will boast a powerhouse field. Els will try to overcome not only the world's best players to retain the title, but also temperatures in South Florida that are forecast to be in the 90s.

The high temperatures are certainly a departure from what several Tour events have experienced so far this year. Chilly and/or frozen conditions affected play in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the Waste Management Open, both in Arizona. Earlier in March, high winds wreaked havoc in the opening round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral near Miami.

"Bring it on," Els said Tuesday. "To play in heat will be great."

The 41-year-old, South African-born Els, who's bagged 64 wins worldwide during his sterling career, was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame late last year and will be inducted this May.

On Tuesday, the popular player known as the "Big Easy" for his languid but power swing sat down with reporters and talked about his chances to defend at Bay Hill along with other topics.

MODERATOR: Like to welcome Ernie Els our defending champion, you won here in '98 and last year, 2010. Talk about your thoughts coming into the tournament and then we'll take some questions.

ERNIE ELS: I'm excited to come here, thank you. Coming to Arnold's place and play; I missed out on a couple of years there but I was glad I came back last year obviously. Heard about the changes they made last year and I think that's why I came back, and really enjoyed it obviously. Quite a hard-fought victory at the end, getting to Monday and sleeping on a very tiny lead but got the job done in the end. I'm excited to come here. We have got a great field. We are going to have great weather. So I think with Tiger in the field again, I see Phil is playing, we have got some really great players here, so it should be a great week.

Q. The forecast calls for possible 90s every single day of the tournament, plus the two days leading up to it. What can heat do to a golf course? Can it change it, and does it do anything for how you prepare to play in 90 or 92 degrees?

ERNIE ELS: Hey, bring it on. It's been awhile. It will be great to play in really good weather. I've played here back in 1993 when Arnold gave me an invitation to come and play, and I played with him. I remember he made the cut that year. I missed the cut, and I've never played in weather quite like that. I thought Florida was a great place for weather, but I think that year, we almost had snow coming down. So to play in heat will be great. The golf course will change. You're right there; it will play a lot firmer. I remember last year, even the greens were quite firm. Depends on if we have wind with warm weather, it will be really difficult, because the greens will get so difficult, and this course is quite long. Some of the holes are quite long, so you come into greens with a lot of wind and very firm greens; it could change your outlook on scoring. There's not too many birdie holes there. But I've not played a practice round. I've heard, my caddie walked it yesterday and he says the greens are really firm. If it there's no wind, the guys will find a way to score. I think scoring could be good this week.

Q. Wonder if I could get another subject here real quick, as you get closer to the Hall of Fame induction, have you kind of embraced it a little bit and gotten more excited as the time has gotten close, and how are your personal plans with the number of people you're going to have there? How has that progressed?

ERNIE ELS: Thanks, yeah, I've really been concentrating to try and get my game back in shape a little bit. So I've been concentrating on that quite a bit. But I have let my mind go towards the Hall of Fame. Been thinking about people that I want to bring over. You know, South Africa is a long way to travel from, but obviously my immediate family will be there and I'll have some really close friends there. I've given thought to who is going to present me, or do the little speech before I have to do mine about me (chuckling). So I've given that thought, and it's starting to get really exciting now.

Q. Is he about yay high and dresses in black?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, exactly. Hopefully he can make it. Normally he's down in South Africa, and I've got a pretty good backup to him, also. So it should be a fun day.

Q. They have a time limit on the speeches, though. You have to explain that to Gary?

ERNIE ELS: Well, both of the guys that I want to do it, they can talk.

Q. Is there somebody in the Hall of Fame, obviously Arnie and Gary, maybe Jack, who played important parts of your life; any South Africans in there other than Gary that you have admired and are kind of eager to share that company?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think what springs to mind is Nick Price. He was basically my mentor when I came out in the early 90s. Nick was one of the best players in the world and then became the best player in the world. Played so many practice rounds with him. Gave me a lot of advice, how to just -- day-to-day stuff on Tour and he's always felt that I should have taken residency in Florida a lot sooner. But I went the other way there a little bit. But he gave me a lot of great advice, not only in golf but in life, myself and Liezl. He was really important for me. Gary Player, obviously; Bobby Locke, he was a little bit ahead of my time. I got to meet him when I was a really youngster, just starting to play the game, and my mom had to actually tell me who he was. He lived in the same town as where I grew up in South Africa, and he was in a clothing store getting a suit made and I was getting my pants made for school. So we kind of met up there, and he was very gracious and very nice. And then started looking at his record, what he's done in the same; so he was quite a player. Yeah, golf in South Africa is a big sport, and a lot of guys have done well. Although Pricey is a Zimbabwean, but we'd like to claim him.

Q. Can you share some thoughts about yesterday?

ERNIE ELS: It was great again. The pros that came down, we actually sent the plane up for K.J. and Justin and some of the guys came from Tampa on the airplane, but a lot of guys drove down from Tampa, the pros, and I just have to thank them then. They are really giving their time for us, our little cause. And Marvin Shanken, who basically it's his brainchild that, golf tournament. With his staff, they ran it very well. The group of people that we have had playing now for the last three years, is basically the same group of guys. Really becoming kind of a close-knit group of people now. We raised over $720,000 yesterday for the Center, and couldn't be happier with that. And we had a beautiful day. The golf course was a little bit tough again. But we had a really good day, and tried to get out of there within four hours. We try and play the thing in under four hours, and if they want to have lunch, they can. But we understand if they need to go, and everybody had a good time.

Q. This comes to mind with Gary Woodland winning last week and Dustin and Nick Watney and other guys who have done well, can you see this trend happening and I would be curious to speak to your owned, of guys who are good athletes, if I might say that about you, capable of playing other sports and for whatever reason choosing golf. Do you see that happening more and more on Tour, and is that going to make it tougher?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think so. I think that's not a bad way to go about it. I think if you are a natural sportsman and you've played baseball or played hockey or tennis or even football, for that matter, that gets you competitive. It gets your body moving in different ways, not only just in a golf, repetitive way. And I think guys who have basically ball sense, we can throw a ball or catch a ball or play another sport; when they get over a golf shot, they look athletic, the posture, and even in the way they hit the ball. Those kind of players I think have a longer lifespan, should I say, even, in the game. If you look at Jack Nicklaus, he played other sports; Arnold played other sports. You see a lot of the really good golfers played other sports.

So I think that really helps. And especially in today's day and age with technology. You know, the quicker you can swing that club, the further you're going to hit it and the more control you can have over the ball with the new technology. So in the old days you used to be almost scared of the driver and just trying to get it in play; you hit it 270, you were hitting a long ball. Now, the guys are athletic, they look after themselves, they are hitting it over 300 yards and they can keep control of the golf ball. I think that's the future.

Q. In regards to your game, talking about rebuilding it or building back up or whatever you're working on, what are the key things there?

ERNIE ELS: Just overall game, I'm working on that; swing, posture, things I just talked about now. It feels quite good. I had a couple of good rounds in Miami, but I need to really convert those putts, and I'm working on that. It's really starting to feel good now. And hopefully I can time it just right this time. Last year, I had quite a lot of game coming in here, and I need to have a couple of good weeks. I'm playing this week and I'm playing next week and obviously the Masters. So it's kind of becoming a little bit more fun the game, for me. I would just like to putt four rounds together now.

Q. Taking you back a few years, if I mention the 1997 U.S. Open, what are the key stretches of golf or holes that immediately come to mind that make you say, that's why I won the tournament?

ERNIE ELS: I was just talking about the final day, but on the third day, we had to finish on the morning. We had to finish our third round on Sunday morning and I hit some really key shots that morning. I birdied 17, I hit tapped it in for birdie, and I birdied the par 5, 15th hole, and I made a really good par save on the 14th hole. So those were really big saves I made. And gave me a little bit of belief into the final day. Went back, had a shot, came back, and played a really solid final round. But I putted so well that week. That whole week, I made some good putts. Obviously I made some par-saving putts again that Sunday afternoon, but obviously the biggest ones were on 18, that little knee-knocker I knocked in there and then 17, parring where everybody else was making bogeys. And I had a chip-in on the 10th hole. The chip-in was big, too. I bogeyed the 9th hole.

Q. You were one back at the time when you chipped in.

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, the four-way kind of shootout going on, I was kind of fortunate enough to get through there. I'm glad to go back. It's a different course. Finishing on the 17th hole now and the 10th hole is now a par 3, which used to be the 18th, they have reversed it. You guys know all about it. I've played it and looking forward to it.

Q. If we booted (PGA Tour commissioner Tim) Finchem for a day and made you Commissioner, what would you do to try to combat some of the slow play that happens sometimes?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I'll get the lasers out, what do you call those things, rangefinders, I'll get that out. I'll make fields a bit smaller. And I'll get the officials to officiate the play instead of us as players. I feel it's kind of uncomfortable to tell your playing partner, hey, you're playing slowly, let's move on. I think the Tour officials should do that, and fields -- yeah, the fields should get smaller. What else?

Q. Would you penalize strokes?

ERNIE ELS: They have done that in Europe and they have probably penalized the wrong players. So if you do that, you've got to penalize the right players, the player that's actually playing slowly. I don't know if penalizing a guy will really help. I think you've obviously got to make an example, but you've got to get the right guy. But that's not a bad idea. (Laughing).

Q. Taking you back a few more years, curious about your experience, coming up on the 25th anniversary of Jack's win at Augusta; as a teenager, from afar, what did that -- were you able to see that? And what are your memories of that moment?

ERNIE ELS: I can remember it very clearly, actually. I was sitting there with my dad and my mom was there for a while. It got so late, she went to bed. But my dad and myself were there. I had a very good year myself that year as an amateur. I won the South African Amateur in March, and so watching that was just unbelievable, because I was always hoping that a guy like Jack would show us what he can do. Because I was just missing him. I remember watching him in the 1983 when Hal Sutton won the PGA at Riviera, and he was in contention watching that a little bit and he didn't quite win. So I still wanted to see my idol win a major, so I was lucky to see it and witness it, and we are still talking about it today. That's probably the best major -- I mean, that's debatable, but that's probably the best major I ever saw on television.

The '77 Open at Turnberry comes to mind, and there's quite a few other ones. But that one was just unbelievable because he beat Seve, just coming into his prime -- well, he was probably in his prime. And Greg Norman, Tom Kite, there were some really great players that he beat that afternoon. I don't know if we'll ever hear the noise like that again. I know we've heard it -- I mean, I've been involved with some really exciting ones but that's probably the best one.

Q. The World Rankings determine so much these days, tournament fields and Presidents Cup; can you compare their importance to when you first came out, and is there a number, like top-50 today, that you were chasing?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, they have always kind of been important, but basically it's more of a talking point now because it's moving a little quicker now than it has been for ten years. People are looking at it a bit closer. It's a great feeling to be in a top-10, top-5, top three, even top-50. Some players, as you say, you're getting into all of the big events. So it's very, very important. Even written into contracts; you get more money the higher you end at the end of the year. It's very important. And it always has been important, but it's even more so nowadays because of the money that is at stake, because you can get into these big events with no cuts. If you play well in those events, you solidify yourself for the next time. So, very important. And I don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing, but that's the way it is.

Q. Pretty loud at Augusta in 1998, wasn't it, the last day?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah. I actually played with O'Meara that day; you were there. And I remember Davis and Tiger was playing in front of us. And we walked up to the 8th green and it's kind of a little bit quieter up there and they just both laughed at me. I came up to the green, because Jack was -- I think he was 4-under through seven holes, and just basically said, is it loud enough back there.

Q. I wanted to ask you about 15; what frightens you about it, what do you like about it, it's position on the course, that kind of thing?

ERNIE ELS: That's one of the holes I haven't played very well personally. That's one of the holes where my ball flight is a bit lower than some of the long hitters, and I've always habit of a problem coming into that green for my second shot. Nowadays, they have made it longer the last couple of years, so it's even a little tougher for me now. I've got a 5-wood in the bag now, and I'm just really glad when I get it over the water. I mean, a lot of guys go for the green and just think eagle and birdie. Nowadays I'm pretty happy with just a par, because I've made some big numbers there. That's one of the holes I would like to play better, and even 13, but 15, where it is, it's just in the perfect position. Especially on the Sunday, because you know, if you could have made a run from 13, if you played Amen Corner at even, and you birdie or eagle 13, and 14 is a birdie hole, 15, you can really think of birdie or eagle and 16 where the flag is, you can birdie that one, also. So you can make a huge major run on those holes.

Q. Can you think of another par 5 that's reachable where you don't want to lay up just because of the third shot you have coming in?

ERNIE ELS: That's true. You know, that third shot is also so tough, because it lies on about a 20-degree angle with the water in front, it's a very narrow green. You know, if you just flick it a little bit, you go over the green and you've got that unbelievably tough fourth shot coming back. So laying up in the right position, and giving yourself the right yardage is so important, and then sometimes there's a little breeze in your face. So it really makes you think.

Q. Does this Masters seem more wide open to you than maybe in the past? And I say that because some of the top players in recent years haven't been doing their best golf this year, Woods and Mickelson have won a bunch of Masters and they are both a little off; does that open it up a little bit?

ERNIE ELS: I think so. I think the way the world of golf has gone over the last year or so, there are so many guys that have come through and really shown their form. You look at Graeme McDowell, you look at Kaymer, obviously, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey I think has got a really good chance there; and obviously Tiger and Phil, they might not even take their best games in there but they arrive there and they feel good about it, and especially Phil. He just loves it there. So I would say Phil is probably the favorite and Tiger second-favorite still, even if they don't play very well leading in there, as I said. And the other guys who are so hungry for majors now, I really think McDowell has got a great chance there. He's got the right ball flight on the driver and putts it very well. I think a kid like Rory McIlroy who is so long, a great touch. You're right, I think it's one of most open Masters in probably the last ten years.

Q. Since they lengthened it, there was this talk by some people, well, maybe only 20 guys can win because it's so long. Unless it gets firm and fast and the middle guy has a better chance, but when you go there, how do you frame how many guys have a chance to win? I know conditions matter.

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's like any major: The first day, you probably see 40 guys, 35 guys with a chance, and then as the days go on, it thins out to about five. (Laughing). So you are always going to see a guy making a run at it and kind of faltering at the end, and we'll see the guys with experience and maybe the guys who really have the belief stay there until Sunday afternoon. I think with the new setup, you know, every kid out there, all of the guys out there are long now. Everybody hits it 300 just about. So length is not that big a factor around Augusta anymore and I think guys who are -- especially around Augusta, the more experience you have there and the more belief that you have that you can win, the better chance you have; rather than just a guy that bombs it.

Q. Going back to the question of natural athletes, natural sportsmen turning to golf, Gary Woodland did not have much of a junior golf residence in a because he played football and basketball and didn't focus on the game until his late ten years. As more and more natural athletes come to the game, do you think Gary Woodland's type of situation would still be a rarity or may we see more of that as we see guys turn from one sport to golf?

ERNIE ELS: You know, I think it's been happening. I think Gary Woodland is now a product of what has been happening the last, I would say, ten years. I think Tiger had a big say in that. People looked at him and, whoa, I want to look like that. But I think in the Gary Woodland case, I think that's been going on for awhile. He's starting to show that now. I think that Dustin Johnson is a great example and he can jump through the ceiling here. A lot of the guys out here, Adam Scott was staying with me last week, we were playing tennis and I can't believe how good of a tennis player he is; he surfs, he can handle his balance.

Out of the Southern Hemisphere, I know how we grow up as kids in school, a lot like the U.S. over here, we play a lot of sport and the one you love the most, you pursue. You guys do the same over here. England is a little different because of the weather and so forth. But I think around the world, there's a lot of guys. In Europe, everybody wants to play soccer, so a lot of these guys -- Quiros, for example, how athletic does he look. He plays soccer and Sergio plays soccer. So it's been happening. A lot of the guys play other sports and it's going to happen even more.

Q. Some of the guys, they still had a pretty decent junior resumé as compared to where Woodland didn't, that's maybe kind of what I was getting at.

ERNIE ELS: There's examples of that, too. Larry Nelson, for example, won a couple of majors and never took up the game until he was 18 years old or something. Greg Norman was the same. He was 16 when he started playing. There's different ways of getting to your final destination. (Laughter).

Q. You referenced the par 3s on the back nine, as far as last year and the significance they played in your championship win. Can you talk about the 14th hole and your general strategy when you stand on the tee?

ERNIE ELS: We play some of the toughest par-3s at Bay Hill. Actually in the whole of Florida, the whole of the Florida Swing, we play tough par 3s and Bay Hill is especially long. The 14th hole depending on the winds you can hit anything from 6-iron to 3-iron or 5-wood. It's well bunkered with bunkers on the left side, the front right and quite a small green, so you have to be accurate. Like all of the par 3s, if you can make pars even, you've done very well, so a tough hole.

Q. The 17th hole, it's a little bit longer, they have got the water around it; tactically do you play that a little differently?

ERNIE ELS: Well, again, I think you're just trying to make par. Obviously you don't want to make big numbers. 17, as you say, is probably the longest one. You hit 3-iron there at least, maybe a 4-iron, if you're lucky and you just want to avoid short-siding yourself. If the flag is left, miss it to the right where you give yourself a bit more room. Just to hit the green is quite an achievement. So that's quite nice. But as I say, just try and miss yourself where you can get the ball up-and-down.

MODERATOR: Thanks a lot Ernie. Good luck this we're.

The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.