The Big Easy is back in business and he could not have timed his renaissance any better. Ernie Els has demonstrated during the last month in Florida that he demands serious consideration again as a contender for major honours. Ten days before the eagerly-anticipated US Masters, which will feature the side-issue of Tiger Woods's return to action after the world No 1's domestic crisis, Els served notice that he will be the man to beat around the testing terrain of Augusta National.
Els became the first player since Woods in 2001 to win two Florida Swing tournaments in the same season when he followed up his impressive success at Doral two weeks ago with a rain-delayed triumph in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Orlando. Despite seeing a commanding five-stroke lead reduced to only two before thunderstorms on Sunday delayed the final round until Monday, Els closed out the 62nd win of his outstanding career by completing the last four holes on the resumption in level par for a two-stroke victory.
Until Doral, where he captured the WGC title by a comfortable four-shot margin over his fellow South African Charl Schwartzel, Els had been wondering where his next winning cheque was coming from after enduring the longest barren spell of his life. After making a slow recovery from serious knee surgery in 2005, Els struggled to regain the form that had made him one of the most feared players on the PGA Tour and a three-time major champion.
His revival was hindered by doubts about his swing which brought about a change of coach and a new approach under Butch Harmon. He also lost focus when his son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. Add to that the blunting effects of the ageing process - he turned 40 last October - and the gentle giant became fair game for those who wanted to dismiss him as yesterday's man. The sharpness is certainly back in his game now, to his great excitement.
Presented with a blue blazer after securing his 18th title on the PGA Tour, Els wishfully suggested having it dyed green in readiness for the victory ceremony at Augusta National on Sunday week. "I know a lot of guys basically have written me off," said Els after posting an 11-under-par aggregate of 277 which gave him the two-stroke margin over Italy's Edoardo Molinari and Kevin Na of the United States.
"And a lot of guys probably said it was a fluke when I won in Miami. It was hard work this week. I'll just keep working hard. There's still a lot of flaws in my game that I've got to figure out and get right. I know I'm never going to play the game perfectly, but I can still improve." Els, who first became a major champion back in 1994 when he won the first of his two US Opens, has gone eight years since winning his third and last major at the 2002 British Open. Rarely in the last few years has he looked forward as expectantly to the prospect of a fourth as he does on the way to Augusta.
"I want to make this a special year, especially after these two wins," said Els who pocketed just over US$1million (Dh3.67m) for his extended week's work in Orlando and now goes on to Houston for the Masters warm-up tournament . "There are still a lot of majors left for me and that's going to be fun now." @Email:email@example.com