James Lawton: Big Easy finds drive in search of road back to greatness

There had to be a crack in the giant, endlessly amiable aura of the Big Easy and when it came those who saw it knew they were witnessing more than a passing swirl of angst. Ernie Els doesn't do fleeting petulance and what happened at Sawgrass two weeks ago, after he haemorrhaged shots in the last stretch of the Tournament Players' Championship, was more like a cry against fate.

Here at the 70th Masters the storm has passed, at least for the moment. But not its meaning. Els had just one moment of regret - a mental lapse which brought double bogey at the 10th hole - after playing his way, through capricious winds into the heart of the tournament and he declared: "I feel very good about my chances... I don't feel I have to shoot a 65 now to have a place in any showdown, I believe I'm going to go very close indeed."

At two under-par he was just four shots off the lead held by Chad Campbell, a large, round Texan who is not expected to be around when the action gets serious on the back nine tomorrow afternoon.

Els marched off the course angrily in Sawgrass, hurling a golf glove at some jeering, by-passed autograph hunters and a television man holding a microphone had to step smartly aside.

Now much is repaired on the beautifully fluent surface of the big man's game. He was the star of a golden morning amid the pinetrees and the azaleas and the great gallery which march at the heels of his playing partner, American hero Phil Mickelson, were forced to stop and reflect on the level of talent that has yielded Els, at the age of 36, a mere three major titles.

As he leaped ahead of Mickelson, his playing partner and conqueror in the last strides of this tournament two years ago, the crowd who came to cheer the All-American boy were also obliged to salute the All-World classicist of the fairways. At the finish they were locked together on the same score ... and in their intensity of their ambition.

Par, on a course which has been increasingly, if prematurely, painted as an assassin of the hopes of all long-hitters, was never remotely threatened as Els took birdies on the second, seventh and eighth holes so easily he might have been returning a book to its shelf.

It was the kind of performance which spoke of a reworked ambition to draw from himself more of the talent which so often brims in him with scarcely a hint of forced effort.

What, you had to wonder, was the trigger? Partly no doubt it was his recovery from the serious knee injury which wiped out the later stages of his last season. Maybe the presence of Mickelson, who so hauntingly deprived him of the title he most wants to add to his haul of two US Opens and one Open title two years ago, also provided a spur. But then maybe nothing has motivated him more than the recent celebration of Jack Nicklaus's sixth Green Jacket won here in 1986, when the Golden Bear was 10 years older than Els is today.

"There is no doubt," he said the other day, "that when I was a boy Nicklaus was my guy. He got everything he could from his talent.

"Sometimes in your life you get to thinking, and this can happen when you're out with a long injury, as I was. You know, if I had been told I could never play again after the injury I would have looked back and said, 'hey, it hasn't been so bad. I've won quite a few events around the world, a few majors, and it's been a good career.' But that kind of thinking is over now.

"I want to look forward not back. Since I was in my twenties I've always said I want to win all four majors, and now I realise that saying that puts a lot more pressure on me. But that pressure is there anyway, so I believe I might as well talk about it. I'm putting all that pressure on myself because this is still something I want to do before I'm done."

All this was something you needed to be told about Els, with his telling of it, because if you had been following his progress over the first nine in the late morning sunshine you might not have guessed the new hard edge of his ambition.

His march up the first fairway was worthy of any conquering hero. It all looked so ridiculously easy. He laid up below the crest of the hill and the bunkers, and his second shot glided on to and bit into the putting surface. His putt missed, fractionally. On the par five second, again he was faultless, missing his eagle putt marginally and offering only a mild shrug.

He looked like a man utterly in charge of himself and maybe one day he may reflect on the value of the sneering youths of Sawgrass. Maybe they reminded him that his career was passing by without a proper return.

When the body blow came on the 10th he winced - and then moved straight back into the mode of a man fighting at his limits under the guise of being on cruise control.

The result was seven pars, a birdie and the unmistakable gesture of a man once again declaring himself a potential world-beater.

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