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March 15, 2006

Ernie Els


JOAN vT ALEXANDER: Thank you, Ernie, for joining us here in the media center at the Bay Hill Invitational. This event has been on your schedule every year since 1993 and you've had a lot of success here. I know you haven't had an opportunity to play the course, but just talk about your game coming in and the week ahead.

ERNIE ELS: Well, I've been coming here since '93, that's a long time. I remember getting an invite from Arnold at the PGA in '92, I couldn't believe it, but he gave me an invite so I came for the first time in '93 and I haven't missed one. I think I won in '98, but other than that, my record is not great here. I don't know if I have another Top 10. I've had my battles around the course here a couple of times and a couple of big numbers on some of the holes. The sixth hole, I'd probably take the sixth hole at even par this week the way I've been playing it. So there's a couple of good fours out there.

Overall, I think the course really suits my game. I've been practicing a lot the last week. I went up to Augusta Tuesday, Wednesday, went down to West Palm Beach, played Seminole a couple of times, played the Bear's Club a couple of times and I did some practicing. So it was a good week for me to have off and spend practicing golf. I decided not to go back to England, but to stay here and get myself in shape so to speak.

Q. Does the golf course not set up that well for you, or is it more because of the time of the year and you haven't played a lot coming in in Florida?

ERNIE ELS: I can't really put my finger on it to be honest with you. I do believe the golf course sets up well for my game. The par 5s, I can reach most of the par 5s in two. The 16th hole is an eagle opportunity if you get a good drive. It sets up well for my normal game.

But I think, you know, in the past, I've spent a lot of time almost overpreparing this week in Orlando because I've got a home here. I can do a lot of practicing with Lead, and a lot of times we've worked on new things and maybe it was a bit quick to work on new things going into a tournament. So quite a few factors.

I really think the course is good. If I play my normal game, I should have a good week.

Q. You mentioned that you went up and took a look at Augusta last week, do you normally do that, and what were your impressions of these changes?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I normally go up there the week before Augusta, the BellSouth, and then we go one day or maybe two days. But I went this year a little earlier. The course is in great shape. A lot of grass, the overseed really took really well this year; they must have had good weather there. The greens were very fast the two days we played. I did see the changes, obviously and they are quite major. (Laughter).

No. 4 is big. The one day it was downwind, I hit a 4 iron to the left flag. The second day, the wind was a little into us to a right flag and I hit 2 iron. Both times I made par, thank goodness. But going into n with a 2 iron into that hole is quite something. It's a bit of a change.

7 was another big one. I hit driver and a 7 iron both days was a little into the breeze. Going into that green with a middle iron is also quite a big change. I wouldn't want to go in there with 4 or 5 iron like some of the guys might go in there with. It's quite big.

Again, 11, quite a big change with the tee further back. That fairway is really narrow now. It's almost like a U.S. Open hole now. And then 17 I thought also was a big change with the fee further back.

So all in all, you know, it's very tough. If we have tough weather conditions, it's going to be a very tough week. It will be it's becoming one of the toughest one of the majors now. Where it used to be kind of the most fun of all the majors, it's becoming the hardest one now.

Q. How about No. 1?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, No. 1, another one. No. 1 I feel the tee shot is almost easier for us. It's 297 yards to the front edge of the bunker, so you know, again, 80 percent of the field is not even going to reach the bunker. It's an easier tee shot, much more difficult second shot. I was going with 6 iron my second shot. On the first hole, you know, it's kind of a tough start to your round.

Q. Did you see that tongue in the bunker the way it's separated?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, if you go into the front of the bunker, you essentially can't get to the green, even if you go just to the right of it, I don't know if you'll have a stance to hit the ball out of there. Yeah, very different.

Q. Looking at next week at Sawgrass, what is it about that course that allows for a variety of winners from short hitters to long hitters and evens out the field?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's a great test. I think to have different winners like that shows you how good the golf course is. Last year, Fred Funk, straightest driver on TOUR, wins the tournament. We've had Davis Love have a lot of success there, and he's one of the longest hitters on TOUR.

So it just shows you, it's got a lot of variety and you can play the golf course lots of different ways. Basically, it gets the best player that's on form is going to win the tournament, if you're a longer hitter, shorter hitter. Tiger has won there, the longer hitters can get the ball in play with 3 woods a lot of holes, 2 irons. It's a second shot golf course. Conditions also determine how you've got to play it. If it's soft, you can be very aggressive. You'll see a lot of good scoring because the ball will stick on the greens.

When it gets a little firmer, the second shots become almost probably the toughest on TOUR because the greens are very small, very undulating, and there's only certain areas where you can go with your second shots. So when it's firm, that's one of our toughest tests. And then obviously when it's soft, it's a big change and it's very easy. We always have rough there, so accuracy is a premium there. You know, your short game, you'd better have your short game around there because the greens are small. So overall, it's a great test.

Q. At Augusta, there's some discussion about people maybe using four and 5 woods in their bag and pulling like a 2 or 3 iron out. First question is, are you looking at that, and secondly, do you think the back nine now is one that you can really make a charge on?

ERNIE ELS: I was thinking about that, trying to maybe work on a utility club the next couple of weeks to use it at Augusta. I think No. 4 will definitely be one hole where it might come in handy. When I hit that 2 iron, as I said earlier, I was hitting it as high as I could and the ball just barely stayed on the back of the green and the greens were quite soft. I'll either have to get kind of a utility club, hopefully good weather conditions, to keep the ball on the green on the right side.

And you know, I think the 15th hole was another hole they lengthened. It's 530 yards now with the tee down, so you're not going to get the ball way down there anymore, or I can't, anyways. I hit I had 231 yards to the front of the green on 15 on the second there and I hit a good drive. Again, I hit 2 iron and it pitched just perfect on the front edge of the green and it just went to the back edge of the 15th green. We all know that green gets very firm, so that ball would have gone through the green. With a utility club, you can maybe stop the ball, get it up higher. So I'm going to check that out.

You know, I think the second part of your question, I mean, 13, I think most of the guys can still get it on there in two shots. But 15, there was a bit of a breeze into us and I really cranked a drive there. As I say, I had 230 in.

So it's going to take a bit of the excitement away definitely. The time like with myself when Mickelson won, that kind of golf, I don't think that's going to happen that often anymore because the holes are getting so long. I mean, 10, you can still get 10 down there, hit an 8 iron into the green. 11 is so long now, you're going to probably hit 3 , 4 iron in there, so that's not really a birdieable hole. 12 obviously is. 13, you probably can get there. 14 is longer, you're not going in there with wedge anymore you're going in with 7 iron. 15 is debatable if you're there in two. 16 is what it is and 17 is longer; that's not a birdie hole, and 18 is not a birdie hole. So you're going to do well to break par the back nine.

Q. How scary is that tee shot out of the chute at 11?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think that one and 7. I think 11 is still more difficult than 7. 7 is pretty tight, too, but 11 is definitely by far the toughest tee shot. 11 and 18 are the toughest tee shots.

Q. Speaking of guys shooting 30 on the back nine there on Sunday, I started to ask you about this at Doral, you said you had watched the Nicklaus win in '86 on TV in the middle of the night with your dad, I guess that would have made you 15, 16 years old, somewhere thereabouts. Were you a Nicklaus guy growing up or did you have another player? And watching that, how did that impact you and were for or against, and what was running through your head as a foreign player?

ERNIE ELS: Nicklaus was definitely my guy. There was a group of players, but Nicklaus, the best in the game at that time. Him and obviously Gary Player, and Seve Ballesteros, I love the way he played, he was in the mix. Greg Norman is another guy I loved watching and he was in the mix, too. I mean, if you look at that leaderboard, everybody that was anybody was on the leaderboard.

You know, as a 15 year old, you think a 46 year old is too old to win. So I was watching and it kind of was like watching an old boxer like Muhammad Ali fighting Larry Holmes and you hope he's going to beat the guy, but you think he's going to get the crap beat out of him. That was kind of the same thing watching Nicklaus play The Masters going into the final nine. You're thinking, I hope he wins, but I don't think he's going to do it. And then he came out with the goods, and it was unbelievable. My dad and myself, sitting there, we couldn't believe it what we were seeing. Especially the 17th hole, also, because he made that huge charge, almost made the hole in one on 16, and then he made that putt on 17 and then it was, you know, it was over.

That was exciting stuff. They can show that on the Golf Channel every day instead of all that other stuff they show. (Laughter).

Q. Have you made a conscious effort this year to remind yourself to be patient coming back from the injury? You're used to competing at such a high level, and then if it doesn't come back immediately, is there a risk of becoming frustrated and impatient?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think you're right, you know, the competitive spurt, you want to get back and play the way I played in 2004. So it's been hard to kind of tell myself, hey, you've been out for six, seven months, just take it easy and it will come.

You know, I really want to get back into winning tournaments and competing and play the way that I know I can. But I'm basically there now, really. Especially after last week and the tournaments that I've played, I kind of know where I am with my game, I know where I am with the knee, and I'm basically ready to step it up a little bit now. But it's been hard to be patient, yeah, to tell myself to take it easy and it will kind of come. So it's been a little tough.

Q. I guess us experts on this side of the table postulated that being forced to slow down last year was a good thing for you. Do you think it was in the long run, and do you feel a different energy going into this major season maybe?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think so. I wasn't happy obviously with what happened to me, but to spend the whole summer at home was great, you know. And then after the summer, I wanted to play golf again, kind of a thing. It was a nice, long holiday and then let's play golf again, but I couldn't.

So there's good and bad. I think mainly good. Because it took me away from the game, I had no chance of getting on an airplane and flying and going to play in a tournament. I had to do what I had to do, do the rehab and get myself in shape. And that makes you think a lot. I've spoken about this a lot already.

So my goals are much more clear. I'm 36 years old, so, you know, I need to do things. I feel good about it. I think I've done a lot of work now and basically it's time to see if it's going to click into good performances and that's what I'm waiting for.

Q. With the changes at Augusta, does that narrow down the list of contenders, and does that benefit and you give you an even better chance of winning?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I would think so. Depends on the weather again. If we have firm conditions, I think probably more players will come into the mix. Saying that, soft conditions with these new clubs that we use, guys can come in with 3 woods, 4 woods, 7 woods and stop it. But overall, over four days of competition, yeah, I would say it's going to narrow it down dramatically. I think experience is going to be big, even more than it used to be because you're coming in with longer clubs and you've got to hit certain areas more than you used to. And obviously, you know, when you miss it, you've got to miss it in the right spots, so experience is going to help a lot.

Over four days of competition, it's going to narrow the field dramatically. You might see more tournaments like we had last year where a couple of guys break away, and it's kind of two different tournaments within a tournament kind of a thing.

Q. Throughout your career, you've been pretty hard on yourself, right, that's fair to say; do you run the risk with coming back from this knee injury of using that as, well, don't be too hard on yourself because you're still recovering from the knee? In other words, do you need to not think so much about this and beat yourself up if you need to? Does that make sense?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think that's where my support system comes in. I think I'm still very hard on myself and I don't think that's ever going to go away. That's basically there. My wife and my management with Mark and Chubby and the guys there, they keep on reminding me, "Listen, we're not worried about now, we're looking at the first week in April, second week in April," that kind of a thing. So even from when I started, came back after the injury I wanted to play at that level already. You know, Ricci, also: "You're not there physically yet. You need more time." So I have a good support system to just remind me, hey, listen, relax a little bit. Let's crawl before we have to walk, that kind of a thing. But, you know, as a competitor, it's hard to explain. You just want to be there, you want to be in the mix all the time.

Q. I know you've talked about this and I apologize for being confused, are you crawling right now or are you walking or are you sprinting? Where are you? What kind of pace are you on?

ERNIE ELS: No, I'm talking at the moment. (Laughter).

Q. Back to this week, the host says that he wants the rough as tough as ever because he doesn't like the way the players are out there just bombing it and they don't care where it goes. I don't know how much you've seen of this course, but do you think well, actually I guess, do you agree with that sentiment and the fact that accuracy has kind of gone away from the TOUR and do you expect this course to be as tough, if not tougher, than it's been in years past?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I agree with Arnold. We play the TOUR, the TOUR should be on a different level than you guys play on Saturday, Sunday mornings, you know. I think we should have firmer greens, faster greens.

I think our brand, the PGA TOUR, is on a different level than people play golf. I mean, we get the most benefit out of technology, as you guys know, and we play the best equipment. I think we should play on the best, toughest golf courses, possible.

And I think, sure, if you hit the ball a long way, you should be reasonably accurate. If you have what's called a 35 , 40 yard wide fairway, we should be good enough to hit it 310 and keep it in the fairway. And that's what we practice for. We don't have the philosophy, not one player on TOUR has the philosophy of just going out and just hitting all over the place. It might work out that way, but we try and aim and get it in the fairway and obviously give yourself the best opportunity to try and make birdie.

I think they can step it up a little bit on TOUR and make the courses more difficult for us to try and make a decent score on. I think you see that, when we get to TPC, all the majors, they are just a little bit more difficult than our normal tour events. So I agree.

Q. How do you feel, you're one of the prime examples of the modern power game, how do you feel away the traditionalists and courses are going about trying to rein in the power game and bring nuance, subtlety and accuracy back into it; do you think the way they are going about that is the right way and how do you feel about being one of the causes of it?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I think technology is a good thing. I think the world, we keep ticking on, don't we. We've got to get better in many ways and golf is just another sport that's going that way. Athletes I think are bigger maybe, and I wouldn't say more healthy, but they are a bit stronger. And with technology, you know, we're going to hit the ball longer. It's like any other sport. Cars get faster; guys in the NFL, get bigger, hit harder. That's just the way of life.

But we've got some great, great golf courses that are just not they just don't play the way they used to play. Bunkers are just way out of play. We play a great golf course down in Melbourne, an Alister MacKenzie course and on a good day there I shot 60 around there with no wind, I was bombing it to the greens, chipping it on and making putts, I was in perfect shape. That course played on that same weather conditions in the 50s or 60s, we would have done really well to maybe shoot 65 coming in with 7 irons, but I was just hitting sand irons into the green.

So we have to look at that, changing golf courses a little bit. That's what they have done at Augusta. I don't agree with all it. There's a good argument that you can have, with technology and the design of golf courses. I think the modern day golf courses that we design, I wouldn't design a course under 7,500 yards, off the back tees, not for you guys. I think it's definitely there's two different games being played today. There's the professional game where we hit it 300 and the amateur game where you guys hit it 200. I mean, I played at Augusta off the back tees it was 7,400 and a bit, and the member I was playing with was playing off 6,300 and a bit.

Q. At 36 and having had more time to sit at home and analyze yourself and where you are, you say you've got things to do, do you think about your place in history and what you can make out of that, your legacy, how vital it would be in your mind to try to win all four majors, because I'm sure you see, you know, what status that has from an historical point?

ERNIE ELS: Well, exactly. You know, you said exactly what I was thinking. If I never play the game again after the injury, you know, I would have looked back and said, hey, it hasn't been bad. I've won quite a few events around the world, a couple of majors and it's been a good career.

But you know, I want to look forward. I've always said since I was in my 20s that I would love to win all four. Saying it puts more pressure on you; so it's there, so I might as well talk about it. So that's what I want to do and try and achieve that before I'm done.

Yeah, I don't care about legacy and all that stuff too much. It's just my personal kind of goals that I want to achieve is important.

JOAN vT ALEXANDER: Thank you, Ernie, for joining us.

End of FastScripts.

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