Ernie Els’ putting woes continue at New Orleans, and the problem seems to be psychological

Brian Murphy

An entertaining New Orleans duel Sunday netted Jason (The Walking Coma) Dufner his first PGA Tour win, but all I could think about was the runner-up: Ernie (The Walking Yip) Els.

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Ouch. This is twice in the last six weeks we’ve seen Els, a beloved player whose gorgeous golf swing and rhythmic tempo could move a man to write sonnets, draw back his putter and commit crimes against the royal and ancient game. It’s enough to make one wonder: Is Ernie Els done as a man who can close out golf tournaments?

In late March, at Innisbrook, Els fought for an invite to the Masters. He needed a win to earn the nod, and had a real chance. But he missed a four-footer for birdie on 16 (yikes) and another four-footer on 18 (double yikes) to miss out on the playoff won by Luke Donald. He gave a now-famous uncomfortable interview to Steve Sands of NBC that indicated Els’ mind was somewhere on the seventh level of golf hell. And as the 2012 Masters played out on his hi-def TV, Els probably flipped back and forth between Bubba Watson’s triumph and rugby footage from South Africa, muttering under his breath like a street transient: “Four-footers … four- footers … four-footers …”

It was probably best his neighbors didn’t drop by for a cold one that weekend. Still so mentally wrecked by missing Augusta National for the first time since 1993, Els missed the cut at Hilton Head last week. But you can’t keep The Big Easy down – especially because he was playing in The Big Easy, perhaps the first time in sports history an athlete performed in a city with which he shares a nickname. To the best of my knowledge, no athlete has ever been nicknamed “Beantown” or “The Big Apple.”

Typical of Els, he embraced New Orleans’ charms. He reported dining in The French Quarter, and enjoyed watching people have a good time, a concept he supports. The good vibes spilled over to his golf game, where he shot 66-68-68 to start Sunday three shots back of Dufner, then carved a gorgeous 67 in the final round to get to the playoff. Finally, after a second playoff hole, Els succumbed to a Dufner birdie, shook his hand graciously, and went home with $691,200, and his third top-5 finish in his last five starts.

But there was a subplot, and a disturbing one at that.

On the first playoff hole, Dufner left the door open. The soul-patch wearing Auburn product missed a makeable birdie try, and Els only had five feet, nine inches for a birdie and the win.

Perhaps you saw the event live. Perhaps you’ve seen a replay. Perhaps you had to look away – which may have been the prudent move.

What Els did to that five-foot, nine-inch putt bordered on felonious. It was a stabbing, a bludgeoning. The golf ball never scared the hole, and instead ran three feet past. It was not only hard to watch, it’s hard to even write about. If it were a baseball game, the skipper would have trudged out to the green and signaled for putting help from the bullpen, relieving Els of the putter and slapping him on the rear end as Els slogged off to the dugout.

There is no other way to say this: Els must have known, over that eminently makeable putt, that he was not going to make it.

Ernie Els … what happened to you, my good man?

Els would later say he took confidence from the many clutch putts he made in his round of 67, and he’s right, he did make a good number of six-to-ten footers to keep his round humming. (We’ve discussed that he’s gone to the belly putter now, a tragic turn for a three-time major champion whose appeal is so much based on his style points.) Els would also add that he was happy with his play, and how he’s playing, and that New Orleans was good to him.

Some would call this “perspective.” Others might use the word “denial.”

Here’s what’s undeniable: Ernie Els, at age 42, has worked his way back into top form as a ball striker. He’s again among the best in the world tee to green, and it’s a joy to see. And, concurrent with that, he’s lost his nerve over important putts. This is not a happy place to be.

Nick Faldo, in a rare empathetic moment, extolled Els’ hard work to get back to form, and noted Els’ pride in his craft to put himself in the hunt so many times in 2012. But Faldo said that Els told him he’s had “a bit of a scare” with the putter, which is sort of like your surgeon telling you he’s had a “slight case of the nerves” with the scalpel.

The U.S. Open looms in a little over a month. Els has won two of them, the first almost two decades ago. He is earning his way toward an invitation, now ranked No. 40 in the world. He has the game to contend at Olympic. I just fear what might happen if he does.

Scorecard of the week

67-65-67-70 – 19-under 269, Jason Dufner, winner, playoff, Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Avondale, La.

So many things to like about Jason Dufner: The Gary Cooper demeanor. The lip of tobacco. The slight paunch. The soul patch. The beautiful fiancée greenside, proving the Gary Cooper/tobacco lip/slight paunch/soul patch works in landing lovely mates – especially when collecting $1.15 million on a Sunday afternoon.

And, of course, the waggle. And the waggle. And the waggle. And the waggle. And the waggle. And … has he hit the ball yet?

Oh, yes, he has. And it is pure, and straight.

Dufner burst into our consciousness at last year’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club by carrying a five-shot lead to the 15th tee Sunday, and by flat-lining his way around the golf course so emotion-free that doctors might have insisted on placing a mirror to his nostrils to see if it fogged. But bogeys on 15-16-17 and an ensuing loss to Keegan Bradley in a playoff meant most of us thought we’d uttered the name “Jason Dufner” for the last time.

Dufner had other plans. With a rock-steady game featuring top-15 driving accuracy and top-30 greens in regulation numbers, he’s held the halfway lead twice this year before New Orleans, including at an out-of-the-way track called Augusta National. But his 75-75 weekend at the Masters had most of us back to believing the Dufner Era was over before it began. After all, 163 starts and no Ws? No wonder the guy carried the expression of the dead.

As Gary McCord said on CBS after a true Dufner drive and ensuing lack of emotion: “Volcanic in his actions!”

Now, after outlasting Els, it’s Dufner’s world. He knows he can win, and he got plaudits from peers such as Hunter Mahan, who congratulated Dufner via Twitter and called the win “long overdue,” which one can take as an insult if one chooses, but Dufner is so mellow he probably last got mad when somebody interrupted a nap back in his college days at Auburn. Moreover, he goes forward with love on his side, as Dufner is set to marry Saturday. Question: Will he use “the waggle” before placing the ring on his bride’s finger?

Broadcast moment of the week

“The first option is … where’s the gator?” – Gary McCord, CBS, as cameras caught a Louisiana alligator trolling the waters near Jason Dufner’s errant tee shot on the 16th hole Sunday.

I’m a Californian, and while fear of earthquakes and overpriced real estate are a part of my daily existence, one thing a golf course has never presented us Golden Staters is an alligator in a water hazard.

Holy Discovery Channel.

As CBS picked up on the gator near Dufner’s ball, each commentator showed his true colors. Aussie Ian Baker-Finch, from the land of Crocodile Dundee, said Dufner should just jump in and hit it before the gator knew what was happening. Nick Faldo, as ever, looked out for number one by saying: “No, Ian, you get somebody else to jump in first before you hit it.” And McCord brought it back by assessing Option Number One: “Where’s the gator?” and Option Number Two: “No way in the world I’d go down and hit that.”

Dufner would take a drop, then make what will forever be known in the Dufner household as “The Alligator Par,” making a 45-foot “bomb,” in his words, for a four to remember.

Mulligan of the week

Do you really need to ask who gets Mully of the Week?

With a chance for his first win in over two years, with a chance to add a victory to his ledger at age 42, with a chance to squelch all doubts about his ability to putt under pressure, Ernie Els stood five feet, nine inches from glory.

And he never got it close.

Without question, we march back

out to the 18th green at Avondale, remind Ernie Els that he’s a World Golf Hall of Fame member, that he belongs in winner’s circles, that he used to win majors, and then … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we do from here?

The next stop is a meaty one. Quail Hollow has turned into a varsity Tour destination. Tiger Woods is emerging from his post-Masters hibernation, and if you think you know how he’ll play, you have magical powers. His last two starts were the win at Bay Hill and the scattered mess at the Masters. Go figure. What we do know is that Tiger will eschew his media obligations Tuesday and instead do a “town hall” of questions from Facebook and Twitter users. Some would say this is a tactic employed by tyrant leaders of small countries, who plant questions like: “Tiger, can you remind us again how awesome you are?” There’s our new nickname for him: Tiger (The Benevolent Dictator) Woods.

Also emerging from his post-Masters cocoon is Rory McIlroy, who lost his No. 1 ranking, regained it, and lost it again – all while never striking a ball in anger. That’s right, Luke Donald’s third-place finish in New Orleans means the soft-spoken Englishman has done the “Excuse me, sir, but I think that Number One ranking was mine” thing again, and outpointed McIlroy, who sat out this week again. McIlroy’s play will be an interesting proposition, considering that his Masters weekend meltdown was lost in Bubba Watson’s glory and Tiger’s over-analyzed travails.

And Phil Mickelson will make it three-for-three on the “Guys We Thought Would Win the Masters, But Didn’t” trifecta of players at Quail Hollow.

Dufner? He’s off getting married, taking that first dance the same way he takes every day – nice and easy, no need to over-emote. Hope his bride isn’t expecting tears at the altar, and hope she’s ready for a first kiss that tastes like Copenhagen.

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