Ernie Els – with a little help from his old buddy and fellow professional Nico van Rensburg – seemed to put some of his putting woes behind him to post a solid, bogey-free four-under-par 68 over the East Course in the third round of the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington on Saturday.
“My putting doesn’t feel 10 per cent better, it feels 100 percent better,” said the four-time Major champion and former world number one.
“Compared to last week at Glendower, when I failed to make the cut in the SA Open and missed a tiny one-foot putt, it’s like I’m on a different planet. I’m playing like I did in my heyday.”
Els said Van Rensburg, now his business development manager, had come up to him and told him his putting couldn’t get any worse.
“He suggested a couple of solutions,” the 46-year-old said.
“First, he got me to putt cross-handed, with the left hand below the right. Then he handed me one of his putters, which he felt would suit me well.”
The putter is a centre-shafted YES putter, nicknamed ‘Natalie’ and similar to the one Retief Goosen used to win the US Open.
And it now seems like a magic wand in the Big Easy’s hands.
Els has had plenty of trouble with his putting for a while now, suffering something akin to the yips.
“I was dead scared of those little two and three-footers, but now I’m suddenly putting great. Thanks to Nico, I am actually enjoying those short putts that I was dreading just a week ago.”
In Friday’s second round, Els needed to hole a testing three-footer for birdie at the par five closing hole on the East Course to make the cut on the number. He rolled it in calmly and confidently, much to the delight of the pro-Ernie gallery.
“It’s funny how things can suddenly change in this game, almost overnight,” said Els, who has slipped to 194th in the world rankings.
“My long game’s never been an issue and if I can putt like I did today (he only had 28 putts), I really feel I can be competitive on Tour this year and get back into the top 50 in the world.”
Els is seven-under-par going into Sunday’s final round following a pair of 70s and the 68.
“I had trouble with my driving in the second round. I changed the shaft in my driver, but got the settings wrong and I was all over the place off the tee. I managed to fix them for today’s round and I was hitting it as well as I ever have.”
Els and Van Rensburg, who won six times on the Sunshine Tour and three times in Asia, have been friends for 35 years. A powerful ball-striker, Nico’s career has been dogged by injuries but he turns 50 in August and is considering a return to Senior Tour competitive golf.