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A critical win for Everyman

The Honda Classic, bless its heart, has always been the ultimate ‘tweener tourney.

It comes after we bid farewell to the classic winter sunshine of the West Coast, saying adieu to the ghost of Bogey at Riviera (the actor, not the score), au revoir to the spirit of Bing Crosby at Pebble, and later, dude, to the Spicoli-like gallery in Phoenix.

The Honda Classic carries with it no imprimatur of legend, no history earlier than 1972 and all the buzz of a tournament that has the golf fan asking: “Say, when’s Arnie’s gig at Bay Hill again? Two weeks away?”

In other words, it was the perfect, low-profile, shhhh-keep-it-quiet-and-keep-the-pressure-down environment to welcome back Theodore Ernest Els to the PGA Tour.

Ernie’s had it rough lately. The Dubai thing with Tiger, a world-class heartache dripping wet with the Splash of Shame on the last … the triple bogey at the last in South Africa in December to blow a two-shot lead … watching Boo Weekley chip in twice at Hilton Head to clip Els … wait, did we mention the Dubai thing with Tiger? Oh, yes. We did. It’s worth a double-dip.

And then, last week, we were left with the vacant stare, and spiritless turn that was his first-round exit at the Accenture Match Play at the hands of one Jonathan Byrd, 4 and 2.

In other words, we’d all crossed Ernie off our Masters pool list. Heck, we were giving more consideration to Jeev Melkha Singh than to Ernie. At least Jeev Melkha Singh didn’t have the bearing and manner of a tragic figure, one doomed to believe that his time would never come again, and if that time did indeed come, it would be flattened by the locomotive named the T. Woods Express.

And then Sunday happened at PGA National. Some of you – heck, there was no Tiger, and no Phil, so let’s admit it, most of you – weren’t even paying attention. You were scouting college hoops to get some early and, likely, shallow and uneducated, scouting reports on tournament teams so you could fake at the water cooler like you knew from Notre Dame’s Jeff Harangoody and Arizona’s Jerryd Bayless. While you were doing that, Ernie chose the off-Broadway theatre of the Honda to make four birdies in his first 7 holes, just when nobody was watching. Then, with the heat on, he went 1-over on his final 11 holes, posted 6-under and waited for his heart to break.

While he waited, his noggin coach Bob Rotella never stood more than 3 feet away, and kept Ernie away from all sharp objects.

Just like that, Ernie Els won the Honda Classic when, all around him, others lost their heads or were bitten by fate. It was room service for Ernie. All he had to do was hit range balls, and have Rotella occasionally remind him to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, and make sure to direct deposit his fee into his account by Monday morning.

Perfect. Nobody chasing Ernie was wearing red. Nobody felt the need to drive his spiked Footjoys into his already wounded heart. Everybody cleared the decks, and when it was over, Ernie had his first win on U.S. soil in a long time. A long, long time. How long? So long, the Boston Red Sox were still working on an 86-year World Series drought, LeBron James was an NBA rookie just out of high school, and the Democratic Party was actually viewing John Kerry as a viable candidate for President. It was the spring of ’04, at the Memorial, and we were all so much younger then, weren’t we?

The Honda Classic wasn’t Easy, but it was Big. So big, that the old softy himself admitted to getting goose bumps when talking to NBC’s Jimmy Roberts about getting the ‘w’. That’s the beauty of Ernie. He’s such an open book, and so vulnerable, we’re drawn to him in a human way, ways the robotic Tiger and somewhat-inauthentic Phil can’t connect. We admire Tiger and Phil for other reasons, but with Ernie, he’s Everyman. He’s been down and out, and he wears it on his golf shirt. We feel his pain.

The Honda Classic might have been a low-profile gig, but it was the perfect place to start a comeback tour, if there’s going to be one. The big bands don’t get back together and start playing Madison Square Garden right away. They play a few local clubs to get their chops first. If Ernie is going to drive down Magnolia Lane with anything other than a sense of fatalism, it’s going to take things like the Honda Classic going his way.

Chalk one up for the ‘tweener tourney.

Mulligan of the week

• Of course, his win was only made possible when Mark Calcavecchia watched the golf gods drive pins into his voodoo doll, slowly and painfully. The site was the 15th hole at PGA National, the shot was Calc’s bunker effort on the par-3. Surely, Calc would feather one close, make par and stay tied with Els at 6 under.

Except, when his gently struck sand wedge landed on the treacherous green, it kept rolling … and rolling … and rolling … and … hey, wait, somebody stop that runaway truck! … and off the green and into the rocky lateral hazard abutting the water.

Calc got hosed.

Calcavecchia is one of those rare birds who treats golf with honest disdain at times, so it was refreshing to see him do what we all would do in the same situation: pick up his ball out of the hazard and chuck it, disgustedly, into the water.

Somebody get that man a mulligan.

Broadcast moment of the week

“I don’t know how he’ll do. That’s a good question. I’m sure he’ll do fine, but I just don’t know.” – Jack Nicklaus, in the NBC booth, on Fred Couples being named U.S. captain of the Presidents Cup.

You have to love J.W. Nicklaus. He doesn’t play the political game. The easy answer to the question of Couples as Presidents Cup captain would be this: “Fred’s going to be outstanding. It was a great choice for the U.S. team. I just hope he can get me tickets.”

Instead, Jack actually left open the possibility of Couples failing. It’s not that Nicklaus believes or wants Couples to fail, it’s just that he doesn’t b.s. Sometimes, his honesty produces awkward moments, and I’d count this one as half-awkward. I mean, throw Boom Boom a bone, right? Just praise him and move on. Instead: “I don’t know how he’ll do … “

The Golden Bear: already motivating Couples.

On a side note, applause for the Dan Hicks-Johnny Miller hot streak. They’re 2 for 2 this year. Last week, they got Tiger for an extremely rare in-booth appearance after his Match Play win. This week, they pull out Mr. 18 Majors himself for an encore. Somebody give the NBC Golf talent-booker a raise.

Scorecard of the week

66-65-69-68 – Lorena Ochoa, 1st place, HSBC Women’s Champions, Singapore.

Oh, by the way: that’s Ochoa’s first start of the season.

So, to review: Ochoa wins 8 times in ’07, tells Annika thanks for coming, but there’s nothing to see here, move along, the party’s over, you name it.

Ochoa puts away the clubs from November until this past week, makes her debut with a tidy little 20-under.

Annika finishes second – 11 strokes back.

Just saying, is all.

Where do we go from here?

• The Tour embarks on Week Two of its relatively low-profile Florida start, with the PODS Championship in Innisbrook. Calc won this thing last year. Let’s throw the guy a bone after last week. And be patient – only one more week till Tiger comes back to continue his ’72 Dolphins impression.