With Tiger Woods removing himself from the spotlight for a week after his return to action in Arizona, Ernie Els has a chance to take centre stage as the PGA Tour switches to Florida this week in the countdown to the US Masters. The Big Easy is the defending champion in the US$5.6 million (Dh20.5m) Honda Classic starting today at the PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, and he goes into the event with his game in much better shape than it was at this time last year.
Els was swinging really poorly 12 months ago but won the tournament because he was able to keep the ball in play and capitalise on his fantastic short game. He has shown some form this season, finishing third in the South African Open and tied for fifth last week at the WGC- Accenture Match Play Championship, but he has been inconsistent. Overall he is swinging better because the coordination between his arms and body has improved tremendously, and recently he has been looking at old videos of his putting stroke when it was at his best.
Last year it looked like he was constantly experimenting with his stroke in an effort to find his best touch on the greens. I watched him closely on the putting green at the Scottish Open and his stroke was the worst I've ever seen it. He was dipping his right shoulder and his head was moving backwards during the stroke. Around 15 years ago, when his putting was at its best, the face of his putter was perfectly square through impact and stayed fairly low to the ground.
If the videos can help him turn back the clock, we could see Ernie add to his tally of more than 60 international tournament victories this week, particularly as his win in the Honda last year could inspire him. While he seems to have been around for ever, he's still only 39-years-old, is in great shape physically and could have many more wins to come. After giving glimpses of the brilliance we can expect in abundance in the weeks ahead, Tiger fell at the second hurdle in Arizona and now takes a break before his first strokeplay event - next week's $8.5 million WGC tournament at Doral.
When he split the first fairway in his opening round match against Brendan Jones, knocked the approach shot to 3ft and rolled in the putt, the signs were ominous. Even more so when he eagled the next hole. But then a few bad shots began to creep in, each flying to the right as a direct result of him trying to protect his left knee, and while he won comfortably enough against Jones, Tim Clark was able to capitalise with some great play in the next round.
It was noticeable that Tiger had his left foot pointing out a little more than usual to relieve the strain on his left knee, but the biggest change was that he maintained his height from the top of the backswing and was trying to make a full turn. The problems occurred when he failed to complete the turn through impact, and came up out of the shot. It will take him some time to get over that problem and eliminate the bad shots.
By winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play title, Geoff Ogilvy proved again that, at his best, he is capable of winning the biggest events. That's three WGC tournaments the 31-year-old Aussie has now won, added to his US Open triumph in 2006, and he's sneaked under the radar to get to No 4 in the world rankings. When he's on, he does look one of the best players in the world, especially in match play where he's incredibly calm and under control.
The golf he produced last week, especially his putting which was outstanding, might even have been good enough to beat Tiger at his best. He's the defending champion at Doral and will fancy his chances of a repeat win. It's a similar story with Lorena Ochoa, now unchallenged as the leading player on the LPGA Tour, who again got her season off to a winning start in the Honda LPGA Thailand last week and now defends her title in the HSBC Women's Champions event in Singapore. Ochoa won five of her first six Tour events last year.
Emphasising what a global game this has become, Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee captured the 981,417 (Dh45.2m) winner's cheque at last week's European and Asian Tour-sanctioned Indonesian Open in Bali. His 11 victories mean he has won more Asian Tour events than any other player, and underlines the fact that Asian players are now a serious threat on the international stage. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org