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March 16, 2004

Ernie Els


TODD BUDNICK: We welcome Ernie Els to the Bay Hill Invitational Presented by MasterCard.

Ernie, two wins so far this year. You defended the Sony Open on the PGA TOUR and also your third time in the row for Heineken Classic. Talk about the great start you had to this year.

ERNIE ELS: It's been good. It's been a little bit more quiet than the previous years, a lot more off time. But, yeah, it's been a good start. I won Sony, and as you mentioned and Heineken Classic again.

As I said to you guys way back, I need to play well when I play, especially on the U.S. tour. I don't play that often.

I've just been working on my game again and trying to get everything at a pretty nice level going into the majors. Obviously the Masters is coming up so the next two events are quite important.

But I feel good. I feel like I'm working good on my game, my swing and stuff, so I've just got to wait and see what happens. It's always nice to come out of the box with a couple of wins. That kind of settles a lot of things.

TODD BUDNICK: Bay Hill is one of those events that draws a lot of international players, yet you are the only one in the history of the tournament to have been able to win here. Can you think of any other reasons why we have so few international winners here at this venue?

ERNIE ELS: Well, we've got so many foreigners that have houses here in the Orlando area. It's funny enough that I'm the only winner out of that little group. It's hard to explain that one. The Bay Hill Invitational always gets a very strong field. The No. 1 player in the world plays here a lot; he wins here a lot, too.

All of the star players come out and play this event. Not only because it's Arnold's golf tournament, that's got a lot to do with it, too, but the golf course itself, it's a long, demanding golf course. You can hit your driver here a lot. You've got to be on your iron game and second shots are very difficult into these greens.

So the players feel, especially the longer hitters feel, that they can really go out there to play their game. Really, the golf course lends itself to play that way.

Q. When you came in here last year, I think it's fair to say you were pretty well fried, injured, is there a difference this year in terms of you're going to be here five straight weeks starting now, this is kind of the important time of year for most of you guys, do you feel a little more bushy-tailed than you were this time a year ago?

ERNIE ELS: I would say so. I was here with an off wrist and a couple of thousand miles behind me flying.

This year is a little different. But, you know, I just come in here, I love playing here, I've got a home here at Lake Nona. We've been coming here ten, 11 years now. So we feel very comfortable here. The golf course is great, and I feel a lot more fresh. I had three weeks off after the Heineken. Played Dubai and I had another week off in London. And looks like I brought the weather with me, unfortunately.

No, I feel fresh and ready. Maybe this is more like my schedule will be in the future, maybe a little more quieter.

Q. Having a home here, how does your routine change when you're at home during a tournament as opposed to being on the road, anything different? How is it different?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's definitely a different feel. At least you're getting up in the pleasure of your home and you know the roads and you know a lot of the people that come out and support you, just local people obviously.

You can kind of get more into a nicer schedule. Unlike in other weeks where you stay in hotels and stuff like that. Just knowing the area and kind of knowing what your day-to-day schedule is, as I said, it makes it a little bit easier and makes it a bit more comfortable.

Unfortunately my wife and family, they are not here this week. They will be here next week. But still, at least I'm staying in my bed that I know and watch my television channels this week.

Q. Which channels are those? Cricket?

ERNIE ELS: No. You can't get cricket here.

Q. Pity. Pity.

ERNIE ELS: Come on. (Laughs).

Q. Heineken moves around, doesn't it?

ERNIE ELS: No, not anymore. They have got it at the same course now. They have had it there the last three years at Royal Melbourne. I think they have got another two years.

Q. Is there something about players being perfectly suited for courses? I think did you well at Westchester, too, didn't you win that back-to-back?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I've done well there in the past.

Q. Does that suit your game?

ERNIE ELS: I guess it does. I've always enjoyed that type of golf, U.S. Open type of golf. I know where you're coming from. Melbourne, I've played well there. I love that golf course, the way you have to play that golf course.

So, yeah, I guess so. You look at Augusta, Jack Nicklaus I think won six times there. So I guess he had a way of playing that golf course. And I think the same with Tiger here at Bay Hill, quite a few course, really. (Laughter.) Especially at Bay Hill. I think you find that the way, your way of finding success on that golf course and your game plan, you just go back every year and you do exactly the same thing. I've done the same at Dubai. I feel very comfortable around that course. I haven't won as much, but I feel like I always have a chance there. Yeah, definitely this course, it suits your game.

Q. Is it a case where the course is perfectly suited to your game? Tiger was just mentioning this one was good to his eye. What's the difference there?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think it's just you look at the golf course, you reach the depth easier. The way that you have to play the course, you can reach the depth easier. Yeah, that's a good assessment. Your eye just sees shots more natural. You don't have to manufacture anything in your game. At certain golf courses, you play this it is easier and other guys don't see what you see. I think that's where you get a major advantage.

With me at Melbourne, I don't feel that golf course is that difficult. I speak to other players and they go, "Well, how do you play so well there?" It's not a real explanation, it's just there, you know. You see the shot better.

Q. Could it be that other guys aren't as good as you?

ERNIE ELS: Well, the other guys play other golf courses better than I do. But, you know, it's tough to answer that. You just feel comfortable and more comfortable when you play.

Q. In your career going back to your amateur days, have you ever been in a position to win a tournament five years in a row?

ERNIE ELS: No, I don't think so. I think I won the World Match-Play, I think three times and one time I finished second to Vijay on my fourth try. Melbourne I've won three times now, so next time I'll hopefully win four. No, those are probably the only two.

Q. How big of an achievement would it be do you think if he were to win it five years in a row given the field?

ERNIE ELS: I don't want to think about that. (Laughter.) I want to win this week. (Laughter.)

Q. Would it give you some satisfaction to win this week given the circumstances?

ERNIE ELS: Hey, it's always a satisfaction. There's nothing like winning. But circumstances, I mean, as a said, I don't want to think about Tiger winning five, you know. I want to try and win this week because I love coming here.

But it's a hell of an achievement, especially in modern day golf. He's set so many records already, and this will definitely be another one that will stand, if he does it, for a very long time. You know, he's an amazing player.

Q. You're one of two guys that have been able to hold the No. 1 World Ranking in the world during this Tiger era, how much did it mean to you that you've held that title, and how hungry does it make others to try to get that back from him?

ERNIE ELS: That was a long time, I think it was '98 last time, six years ago. But it's an amazing feeling. I remember it was a great feeling to have. It wasn't that long but it was still, you know, I got to that point.

You know, you work for a lot of things in your life, and when it happens, when it comes around, it's a great feeling to have.

But, who knows, you know I think players are playing well. Vijay is playing great, Davis is playing really well, I'm playing good, Mike Weir. Guys are there. But Tiger on his off-weeks is still finishing Top-10 and that's a huge difference. Some of us, our off-weeks, we finish 40th, 50th and he finishes Top-10. I think that is his standard. He's setting a tough standard.

We'll see how it goes. Just got to keep going. You've got to play at a high standard of golf and you've got to keep maintaining that. Some of us have been doing that. There's a couple of players who have been playing at a sustainable level, high, sustainable level.

Q. When we talk about the majors, is it possible to overemphasize them in a player's career, or is it something that you can't emphasize their importance enough in a player's career?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think the second. That's everything. I think No. 1 to be No. 1 in the world is one thing but to win a major, that's what we all strive for. All four of them are equally important. You go ask the guys, Ben Curtis, Ben Curtis, Tiger what is the most important, I think they all will tell you, winning a major championship. That's what we all want at the end of the day.

Q. You talked about how you enjoy the course here. The maturation of the course over the last couple of the years, after the re-design there was a fair amount of criticism, has it softened to some glee over the last few years?

ERNIE ELS: The back nine, Arnold changed a lot on the back nine. A lot of the greens on the back nine changed in the last five years, I think almost every one of them he changed.

I think that's where a lot of the criticism is coming from, especially on some of the par 3s, we're coming in with long irons here at Bay Hill. Some of the greens on the par 3s have really become very difficult to even just keep it on the green, especially, I think it was last year when the greens were so firm. 17, coming in with a 3-iron or 4-iron, even the best players are going -- I think there was only three balls that stayed on 17th green. That's a little difficult for us. It's really changed a lot.

Off the tees, not much. You know, from the tee in the ground you can still see very much a similar area. But the greens are real really changed. You have to hit to hit different shots to some of these greens and it's a little different.

Q. A year ago a few of us were asking about the build-up to the Presidents Cup in South Africa. A few months later, what's been the feedback for South Africa and the Presidents Cup?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I was down there again after, in February, and it's been unbelievable. That area, George, I've got a house there and the place has really changed a lot, you know. There's a lot more tourism coming through there, a lot more American people are coming through there.

There's a lot more interest and more golf courses around there. We're doing a golf course there at the moment. I hear Greg Norman is going to come and build one across the river from our course. Jack Nicklaus is down there building a golf course. So there the area is really exploding as a golf destination right now.

The people really enjoyed it. It was really an uplifting event for the country. As you mentioned before, we lost the World Cup soccer and cricket has been going through a little bit of a rough time, in general, sport for South Africa has not been very good. So the Presidents Cup is a highlight.

Q. Talk about how you're going to prepare for the first major of the year at Augusta and what you think this course is going to play like?

ERNIE ELS: We haven't seen the course dry yet since all the changes in the length, hopefully we won't see it dry, it will be very difficult. My preparation, I'll stay away from punching bags and stuff like that. (Laughter.) Hit a lot of golf balls and get my short game as sharp as I can get it. And little chip shots, chip-and-run shots, bunker play is very important there. Obviously, putts from eight feet and in, you've got to be pretty solid on those. Driving the ball, I'm driving the ball quite well, punch wood (knocks on wood table). So my game, I feel my long game is not bad, but I can really sharpen up my short game. And start thinking about it a little bit more in the next month or so.

As I said, if that golf course gets really firm and fast, it will be really interesting to see the winning score because it's changed.

Q. With the changes in the world No. 1 criteria and how it's configured, do you think that that's going to -- is that a good thing, or the fact that they keep changing the criteria over the last few years, that will take the integrity away to some degree of that position?

ERNIE ELS: You know, to be totally honest with you, I'm not totally sure how the World Ranking deal works. I know if you play in a tournament like this where there's a lot of high-ranked players, you get a lot more points finishing high up, okay. That's about what I know about the World Rankings. (Laughter.)

So if you keep playing well, keep winning golf tournaments, you're going to be fine. I don't want to get much further involved than that. (Laughter.) Ask somebody that knows somebody about the World Rankings, please. That's my answer.

Q. A couple of questions on the majors. Back to a question earlier. Do you think at the end of someone's career, they could be considered a great player if they haven't won one?

ERNIE ELS: I think a very good player. (Laughs).

It's hard for me to believe that Colin Montgomerie has never won a major. He's won the Order of Merit seven times in Europe. I would like to think of him as a great player because of the stuff that he's done over there is great. You know, you don't win seven Order of Merits, that's unheard of.

A guy like Phil Mickelson, you know, I think he's won 21,22, 23 times on the U.S. tour, he's come very close, played a lot of Ryder Cups, World Cups; you would like to think that he's a great player, also.

As we said earlier, at the end of the day when you're done, you look at major championships, I mean, that's really how you gauge yourself. So it's hard to answer that. They are, I would say, great players, yeah, because they really stand out with what they have really achieved in their careers, and it would make it so much more fulfilling if they win a major.

Q. Two of your majors have come in playoffs, one on 18 holes, and one should have been four but it turned out to be what, six whatever it was. Going to the Masters now, which is the last sudden death format in a major, what are why you thoughts on that? What's the best way to decide the winner of a major in a playoff?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, it's a difficult one. It's certainly more exciting for the fans and television if it's sudden death. But for so much on the line, you would like to have a couple more holes because then, you make a mistake, we all know that. You've played for four days with all of that pressure and to play maybe just one hole, it could be a little bit hard to take to decide the point. Yeah, it's a good question. It's very debatable, obviously.

Me personally, I would say play at least six holes.

Q. Where did you come up with that number?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it gives you a better chance when you can still make a mistake. It doesn't mean that you're a worse player than the other guy. I think it's a fairer way of getting the champion. As I said, play for four days and then boom, off you go.

Q. Didn't you start with a triple in the 18 hole playoff?

ERNIE ELS: Exactly. I started with a bogey and then a triple.

Q. Sorry.

ERNIE ELS: So I was 4-over through two. Still managed to scrape it around.

Q. What would you think if Augusta went to a three-hole playoff at Amen Corner,11, 12, 13?

ERNIE ELS: It would be unbelievable, wouldn't it. You know that, would be -- that would be just unbelievable. In the sudden death, it's never gone past 11.

Q. There's a real fascination with Tiger engaged and how being married and maybe fatherhood might affect him. Can you talk about how being married and having children has been for you? It doesn't seem to have hurt you.

ERNIE ELS: Did you ask him this question? (Laughter.)

No, I think he's going to have a great time. That's what life is all about. Golf is a game and we take it very serious at times. Obviously, we make our living out of this game and all of that. But there's a lot to life than golf, obviously. He met a great girl here and she's a wonderful girl. They are going to have a great future together. That's that. Kids will come along hopefully for them and that's another blessing in life. You know, it's just a wonderful time.

Myself, we are having a great time. It's not great being away from them; that's a bit of a bummer. But we have to do what we do at times, and that means if we have to be away from home sometimes, that's that.

You know, that's a great feeling when you have that bond. It's a family bond, and it's just, you guys all know what I'm talking about. It's just special. They have got a lot of great stuff still to look forward to in life.

Q. How would you assess your excitement each week when you play, like the first round, Thursday of a tournament? Is it exciting each week or does that kind of -- is that kind of like a roller coaster or is it different? We talk a lot about majors, talk about your excitement level?

ERNIE ELS: Well, if I play in a tournament and I'm not excited or I'm not nervous on Thursday, then you've got to ask yourself some questions. It's still a very big deal for me; each and every tournament I play, I feel kind of the butterflies a little bit. A little bit more so in majors. That's a good feeling to have. You feel you don't want to mess up and you want to give it your best. I think that's where the butterflies come from. I think if that disappears, you maybe have to ask yourself some questions.

Q. How is your run-up preparation for the majors changed over the years? I can't remember off the top of my head whether you've played Atlanta before the Masters some years or others. Can you talk about the advantages and whether you've actually found seemingly your best way to prepare, whether it's practicing or actually under live fire?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I think at the end of the day, it's maybe better to maybe play a lot of competitive golf leading into a major to see where you are in the competitive environment.

But there again, I've checked out the golf courses before the majors. I didn't have a great experience in Atlanta. Nothing against the golf course. I think it's good that they have that type of course before the Masters because the greens are very similar.

Talk about the eye, my eye just didn't feel good on that course. So I decided not to play that the last couple of years. I go up at least one day the week before. I'll go up the Thursday this year before Masters and then I'll go up there on a Monday Masters week. So I'll just have another look.

Other majors, it's funny, I've always played Loch Lomond, the Scottish Open, before the British and that's totally different golf. But I feel good on that course. I like playing there.

U.S. Open, they have the Buick Classic before now, I like going there always; that prepares me.

I think I've got a pretty nice formula. My majors here have been pretty well the last couple of years.

Q. Will you stay around here or you have the Tavistock here Monday Tuesday will you stay around here and practice?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, exactly, we'll play the Tavistock deal, hopefully kick some butt there, and then Thursday I'll go up there. So I've got a nice week.

End of FastScripts.

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