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Losing his touch on putting, Els slowly losing grip on his game

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Els watches as Paul Casey tees off in Saturday's third round. The two are tied for second. (Getty Images)  
Els watches as Paul Casey tees off in Saturday's third round. The two are tied for second. (Getty Images)  

SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- It's not exactly a company secret that after all these years, Ernie Els skews a bit toward the experienced side of the veterans' ledger.

He's not old, per se. Just older.

So imagine his chagrin when he was paired in the final group of the Frys.com Open on Saturday with 21-year-old rookie Bud Cauley, a kid who is roughly half his age and a foot shorter in stature.

Standing in the tee box, the two towheads looked rather comically like father and son, which brings us to the true double whammy of Els' experience in the third round. The three-time major championship winner then learned Cauley's father is younger than Ernie, too.

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Bad enough that most of the players these days are younger than Els, who's 41, but so are some of the parents? Just another brusque slap to the face from relentless Father Time.

"A lot of things make me feel old," Els cracked.

Actually, another calendar-related issue is at the fore this week at CordeValle, where Els is tied for second with Paul Casey and two strokes off the lead heading into the final round.

In what easily ranks as his most disappointing PGA Tour season, Els hasn't mustered a single top-10 finish, ending a streak that dates back 18 years to before he was a member of the tour.

"He's had a terrible year for a player of his caliber," said caddie Ricci Roberts, who has worked on and off for Els for nearly two decades. "It's all a confidence thing."

It's actually a bit simpler than that. It's all a putting thing, really. Els, now using a belly putter, has been battling his putting stroke for the past four seasons, using a variety of grips and putters, trying to find the panacea.

For whatever reason, perhaps partly because Roberts was brought back on the job last week after a year-long separation, the belly had been behaving. Els is 27th in the tour's new putts-gained putting category, which given the way he still stripes it, is probably good enough to win.

Even after a year apart, Roberts could see that the 13 other clubs in Els' bag are as deadly as they ever were, including when he won twice in the Florida Swing in March of 2010.

"I know that, I think everybody else sees that," Roberts said of Els' travails on the greens. "Tee to green, he's better than anybody else out here."

Playing at CordeValle Golf Club, which has several acres of vineyards located only a few yards off several fairways, Els hit some truly vintage shots, like the 5-wood into the par-5 ninth hole. Els drilled a shot from 234 yards that cleared a greenside pond by perhaps two feet, then rolled in a five-footer for an eagle.

Els is playing in the Fall Series event this week because SAP, one of his longtime sponsors, was founded by company founder and CordeValle owner Hasso Platner, who asked Els to enter. So the Big Easy flew here from St. Andrews, where he played last week on the European Tour, and made his first Frys appearance.

"Sometimes, you've got to listen to the boss," he laughed.

Dave Fry, whose family owns the electronics firm that sponsors the tournament, was watching as Els eagled the hole and said that when the South African visited the property last year, he "took a bucket of balls into the middle of the ninth fairway and hit a bunch of approach shots from the go-zone."

That knowledge came in darned handy Saturday, eh? Thankfully, Platner twisted his arm and it came to good use.

"He's a good friend, it's a good golf course, and I'm glad I'm here," Els said.

So is Roberts, one of the most colorful characters in the caddie ranks. They have split so many times, Robert laughed when asked to venture a guess. For most of the 2011 season, Els used former NHL player Dan Quinn and South African countryman Mike Kerr. Roberts, who has caddied for 57 of Els' worldwide victories, has stopped trying to guess when the phone will ring.

"You never know, do you?" laughed Roberts, who has also caddied for major winners Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel. "Your guess is as good as mine. It's like a bad marriage, really."

Funny line, but pretty much true, too. The pair has a curious relationship. When Els narrowly missed a well-rolled birdie putt from 14 feet on the first hole Saturday, Roberts tried to pump him up and said, "Good putt, there."

Els deadpanned, "Yeah, for once."

Incredibly, Els' best finish in 24 worldwide starts this year is T15 in March at Doral, a tournament with a truncated field. As a result, even with three victories still on his two-year ranking period, Els has skidded to No. 45 in the world. Tiger Woods has barely played and is only six spots lower.

His last season without a PGA Tour top 10 was 1992. So, yeah, the news that Els hasn't cracked the top 10 in '11 causes some double-takes.

"You know, even when Ernie is not on his game, he's Ernie Els," said Casey, who played with Els on Saturday and will reprise the grouping Sunday. "You expect the guy to win a couple of times a year around the world. So, yes, it does surprise me."

With 18 victories on the PGA Tour and another 44 internationally, Els believes he'll be able to muster up the mental muscle memory, if you will, when he needs it most. But you know what they say about old guys and forgetfulness, right?

Any way you slice it, even with all those wins, it's been awhile.

"[It's a] different feeling," he admitted. "I haven't been in this position all year. I don't think your memory disappears after 20 years of being out here."

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