Arnold Palmer's tournament a highlight in Big Easy's schedule
Fully recovered from a knee injury that cut short his 2005 season, Ernie Els returns to the Bay Hill Invitational presented by MasterCard eager to resume his winning ways on the PGA Tour and revisit a layout that he enjoys and where he's had some success. Traditionally drawing one of the strongest fields in the game, the Bay Hill Invitational, which is celebrating its 28th year, is scheduled for March 13-19.
Els, 36, who has a home in Orlando, was involved in a freak boating accident last July while on vacation and suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament to his left knee that required surgery. He did not play on the PGA Tour the remainder of 2005, but did play twice in his native South Africa in December, winning his second start at the
Dunhill Championship on the European Tour.
Returning again to Bay Hill, where he won in 1998, Els hopes to add to his 15 PGA Tour titles at one of his favorite venues. Nicknamed the Big Easy, Els won the storm-interrupted 1998 edition of the Bay Hill Invitational in a 36-hole showdown against Tiger Woods and Davis Love III. He separated himself from the field with a sterling third-round five-under-par 67, and despite a final-round 73, Els' 274 total was good for a four-stroke victory over Jeff Maggert and Bob Estes.
"It was a great winning it at Bay Hill, because I was just a new resident there in Orlando," Els recalls. "I had a lot of fans there from Lake Nona. Playing with Davis and Tiger. I think Davis, Tiger, myself, we were top three in the world then and we played 36 holes together there, so that was a really special one."
It was also special because of Els' relationship and personal history with the tournament's host, Arnold Palmer.
"Arnold was so wonderful to me. I played with him in the 1992 PGA, and he told my agent at that time that he was going to invite me to his tournament," Els recalls. "He wrote me a letter. He invited me out of the blue to come and play at his golf course. He has always been great towards me. He's always been a friend of mine. I still have that letter, so that's pretty cool."
So were the spoils of victory. "I think getting the sword from Arnold, getting the jacket from Arnold, all that was great," Els says.
Els, the No. 4 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, has won 10 of his 15 PGA Tour titles and 20 of his 42 international trophies after breaking through at Bay Hill. Since 2003 only Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have won more than the five titles Els has won on the PGA Tour. He missed last year's PGA Championship because of his knee injury, but he hasn't missed a cut in a major since the 1999 PGA while compiling 11 finishes of fifth or better, including the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield, Scotland. He also has won two U.S. Open titles, in 1994 and 1997.
Els tied for 23rd last year on the 7,267-yard, par-72 Palmer-enhanced layout that is among the most challenging the game's top players encounter all season. "It's a good course, it's a long hitter's course, and I feel real comfortable there," Els says. "The start is really tough, and the finish, 17 and 18 are very strong holes. But if you're on your game there, you can make some birdies on the par-5s and take advantage of a few other holes. The rest is just play hard and try to make your pars."
Els says his forced sabbatical was good for him on several levels, and that he's ready to resume his chase for more victories, especially major championships.
"Obviously, when you have time off like that you can reflect and set goals, and I've had real time for myself and to be away from the circus, you know," Els says. "I think all this time that I had off was very constructive for myself, my family, for my business, everything around. I have got things in place a lot better than I had them in the past. I've got clear goals again, I've got some energy again, and I'm looking forward to playing."
For tickets to the 2006 Bay Hill Invitational presented by MasterCard, or for more information, log on to the tournament web site, www.bayhillinvitational.com, or call the Bay Hill ticket office at 407-876-7774 or toll free at 1-866-764-4843. Tournament proceeds benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.