March 23, 1999
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA
ERNIE ELS: I went out this morning at 8:00, and it seemed in immaculate condition. The greens are beautiful right now. Normally some of the golf courses we play we get down on Tuesday, and it's not quite ready. But this one is absolutely ready. Greens are firm, but fast. Fairways are perfect. I mean, the course is just great to be played on right now. So we can't complain about the golf course. And 8:00 in the morning, the weather is pretty good too. Pretty nice morning out there. And I'm looking forward to it. It's a huge tournament we are playing in, moneywise and playerwise. You know, we got the best players in the world playing it. It's all happening.
LEE PATTERSON: Any questions?
Q. Ernie, the guys tell us that the rough is up a lot higher than normal for this course. Is that going to present a problem for you off the tee or take the driver off of your hands --
ERNIE ELS: The rough is up. The rough will be a problem if you go in this week; especially with the greens being this firm. You've got to hit the fairways this week. So depending on the wind - if there's a lot of wind, it's going to play very, very tough. If it stays the same as this, you'll see some low scoring because it's easier to keep the ball in play and then go at the flag. So it's going to depend a lot on what the wind does. Some of the holes you have to kind of try and attack. You have some of the par fives you can reach, like 16, 11. You have got to try and hit the driver down there and try to go for the green in two. So some of the holes, I feel, that they've lenghthened then. Nobody said anything. But I've played quite a few years now, I think it's my sixth or seventh time here, so I feel that they've lenghthened a couple of the par 4s. So maybe it's good. You've got to put the ball in play this week. I don't see a very low score for anybody.
Q. Have the greens on the Tour, in general, been playing faster this year perhaps because of weather conditions; it's been a little drier?
ERNIE ELS: Yes, I think so. I don't know if it's the Tour policy nowadays, but it feels like the greens are firmer, a lot firmer and faster. I started playing L.A. at the Nissan Open and I'd say the greens got a lot better there obviously. But it felt like the Florida swing, certainly the greens have been faster and firmer. This one is definitely very fast and quick. So, it's probably a good warmup for us more than anything.
Q. Do you necessarily have a problem with greens being fast on a consistent basis?
ERNIE ELS: It makes it tougher. It really speeds up the whole golf course. It puts you more in a defensive mode on the greens. Bay Hill and maybe the Honda, the greens were very flat; they were quite fast, but not at these speeds and these greens have got a better slope on them, so you better watch it on the greens this week. You can't be very aggressive on them. So it can become a problem; especially in the afternoons.
Q. Obviously, a lot has been made of David Duval/Tiger Woods type rivalry. Your name is not thrown in there. No. 1, does that bother you and (2), do you attribute it to the fact that you are not an American?
ERNIE ELS: Maybe that is good. I have said it so many times I have had this question and I still say that, you know, all credit is due to them because of their records. They have really proven themselves as the two best players in the world right now. Especially David winning so many times in the last 18 months and really Tiger really being there almost every time he plays, so after a record like that, you have got to start talking about them as the two best players and rightfully so. I think you've got to throw Vijay Singh in there now. You have got to throw Justin Leonard in there. You have got to look at the guy's records and then start talking about it, but definitely those two guys have been dominant and I have had my flashes. So I wouldn't say I am quite at their level the way they have been playing, but at my best I can play with them.
Q. Getting back to the course difficulty question, I don't know if you'd call it a controversy, but I guess there is a faction of players who aren't thrilled with how difficult it has become around the greens. Where would you fall on that side of the issue? Are you happy with the way things are; difficulty of course conditions?
ERNIE ELS: Well, yeah, I mean, this course, yeah, they have lengthened some of the holes. I feel that the rough is up. I don't know if the golf course was really designed to play this way. You have got the little greens with mounds and I feel that this golf course was built to play in soft conditions because of the severity of the situation around the greens. I mean, if you miss a green, you have really got a difficult up-and-down. It can become borderline sometimes. If the wind blows at you on these type of greens the way they have set them up, it is going to be awfully hard to break par. Again I say that Pete Dye designed this course probably to have it more of a target kind of a golf course; fly the ball in the air and you stop it on the greens. When you have the greens this firm, you can't do in anymore. So what do you do? (laughs) I guess they are trying to stop 59s being shot out there nowadays.
Q. How would you assess your game right now, the way you are playing and especially your putting?
ERNIE ELS: I am hitting it pretty nice tee-to-green still. The last two weeks I haven't played very well at all, at the Honda Classic, especially. I looked actually at the stats and I was in the Top-10 at greens hit, but 65th in putting. That is not a very good combination. So I'd like to improve on my putting. I have been working on it a little bit. I have just been very uncomfortable over the ball putting-wise and just haven't been very positive on my putting. Hopefully I can get that better. I think with the greens this tough, it is going to be tough for the guys to make a lot of putts. There is a lot of slope in them.
Q. You have done something rare and that is win a tournament back-to-back years. How difficult is it to defend and what are the things that happen the week you are defending that adds a little bit to maybe the distraction of trying to do that?
ERNIE ELS: It is a pretty difficult week. I mean, last week I was defending the Bay Hill and, you know, I wouldn't say there is added pressure, but, I mean, the odds of you defending successfully is pretty slim. There is a lot of interviews you have got to do. There is quite a few more distractions than normally you have going into a tournament and it shouldn't be like that, probably, because you should have really good feelings from the previous year, but you have to go to dinners; you have got to speak to a lot more media people. There is a lot of other things that come into play defending your title. It could become a bit of a distraction.
Q. Is it hard to block that out or do you just -- you say it is so hard to win out here in the first place that defending isn't something that -- you should just not worry about it; put it out of your mind and play?
ERNIE ELS: That is what you would want to do - go out there and play and say, I have won this tournament last year; let's go out and enjoy it. But I think you get caught up in the tournament itself. You get caught up, your emotions and you get -- you probably try a little bit harder even to try and defend it. I have defended successfully before, the Buick, but I just love the golf course. I just go out there and feel I am going to shoot well. If you are going to have that attitude, you are going to be okay. There is a couple of things that come into play.
Q. I know you are focused on this tournament and Augusta. Three weeks from now you meet a pretty good international field in the Harbour Town. Can you discuss that field and that golf course?
ERNIE ELS: That is kind -- it's a really fun tournament, especially after The Masters. You go down to Hilton Head. It is holiday time and a lot of guys -- not a lot, Davis normally brings his boat in there and Greg sometimes and really -- and after all the pressures of The Masters, it is kind of nice to go to a nice place where you can relax a little bit; maybe have a couple of beers and just -- it is kind of more, I don't want to take anything away, but it is a lot more low key than obviously the Masters week where everything is so hyped up. It is a really nice tournament to go to and kind of relax and enjoy the golf course and the surroundings. It is just -- it is a fun event.
Q. Some of the media attention here at this tournament isn't necessarily on this tournament. A lot of the questions are about leading up to The Masters; about the course; and what have you. How difficult is it for a player to really focus on trying to win this event and then turn right around and try to do the same thing two weeks again?
ERNIE ELS: That is pretty easy. I can give you 900,000 reasons why this is quite an important tournament. I mean, it is a big, big money event. It is not a major. It is not an official major, but in the player's minds and views, it is one of the biggest tournaments. It is probably the fifth biggest tournament we play. Everything is just -- for us, this is the Players' Championship; everything is kind of perfect for us. The course out there is in immaculate condition, the clubhouse, everything about this tournament, around this tournament is just the way the players really want it. This is the players' favorite tournament. You are focusing on this week really. What is going to happen in two week's time is going to happen. I am definitely not even thinking about The Masters this week. I will start thinking about it next week when I have got a week off. I think the tournaments nowadays are so big and they mean so much, you know, with the World Ranking points, money titles, I mean, the guy that wins this week has got a very good chance of winning the money title and maybe become Player-of-the-Year, all that stuff, so -- and even I might -- in L.A. I won $500,000, you are almost in the top-30 now. Top-30 gets you into the World Championship event at the end of the year. To just try and get yourself warmed up for a major in these regular tournaments is probably a mistake nowadays. You have got to take it to try and go out there and win.
Q. How difficult is that travelling; going to be going from THE TOUR Championship in Houston to Valderrama and do you think that some guys might consider not making that trip?
ERNIE ELS: That will be kind of stupid, playing for the million dollars first prize and you have got to beat another, how many players -- how many are playing in that tournament?
LEE PATTERSON: 60.
Q. 50 and then another 14 they take from the money list.
ERNIE ELS: That will be kind of dumb. I don't think anybody would really miss that. The Match Play, on the other hand, could be a different story because you win $25,000 if you are a first-round loser, you know, I can go play Dubai where I can make 250 or 200 in appearance money, so you have to think about that one a little bit. No, I mean, that is no sweat for me from Houston to Valderrama, that is a short trip for me anyway. It is only about a ten-hour trip for me so it is not a problem.
Q. You have had some success; particularly in the last three years here at this event. Talk about your comfort level here and how your game matched up with this course.
ERNIE ELS: In the past I have pretty good finishes here, but I have never really been on my game. Never really shut the lights out on this course. My best round here is a 65 a couple years ago which was when the conditions were very soft. It is a course where you have really -- especially this week, I might enjoy it because you really, I think this week is going to be very much like a major championship this week. I think you are not going to see too many low scores if it doesn't rain. You have got to hit your shots, got to keep the ball in the fairway. You have got to play all the shots this week. It is not just a tournament where you just got to get out there with a driver and just bomb it maybe like last week and the week before. This week you will have to play golf. You will have to really think your way around it a little bit. You can't go for everything this week. Maybe make a couple of pars instead of trying to make a birdie on every hole. I think that is the way it played last year. I think Justin won by three or four last year and he played a great final round; maybe that is why. I have been close to par and I finished in the Top-10 a couple of times.
Q. Getting back a little bit to this Tiger, Duval and yourself, sort of the emerging three right now, can you just talk little bit about what you like about the things -- what are some things, if you could play the game the way they do, what are some things you'd like to have from their games?
ERNIE ELS: Well, the way they hit their drivers, I mean, they average it about 300 nowadays. I mean, Tiger can hit a 3-iron; he can land it 230 yards and hit it 120 feet up in the air. I mean, they have just got all the shots right now. They have got the power game. They have got accuracy. If you look at David Duval the way he drives the ball, I mean, he drives it 280 to 300 yards and he hits a lot of fairways. That is just the way the game has changed. I mentioned last week maybe when I spoke to you guys that maybe in the early '90s, late '80s I think Nick Faldo was the best player and he played a controlled game. But he didn't hit it 300 yards like these guys do. He use -- probably 250 down there, but hit every fairway and from there hit every green. But, nowadays, they hit it twice as far and still very accurate. Really great around the greens. They have just got the all-around game right now.
Q. Can you talk about the 17th hole here a little bit?
ERNIE ELS: Well, the 17th you always, when you get on that tee, you feel butterflies a little bit. You feel a little bit -- a little nervous. It is only a 9-iron today -- today was only a 9-iron. I just try and put it in the middle of the green there and take three. If you make two, great. Just try and make three really. You've see some great shots there and you have seen some ugly ones too. It is a great short hole. It just makes you think all the time.
Q. Ever have a nightmare there?
ERNIE ELS: No, touch wood. Don't even ask me the question.
Q. Never been --
ERNIE ELS: Again, touch wood. That is why I don't like coming in here, you start getting into my mind (laughs).
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