Mitsubishi Electric Classic: Life after 50 treating Ernie Els kindly

Ernie Els, in action on that "other" PGA Tour, hitting to No. 13 at last year's Memorial tournament. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Ernie Els, in action on that "other" PGA Tour, hitting to No. 13 at last year's Memorial tournament. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

There is much to be said for being 51 years old and getting called a rookie. It is the semantic equivalent of getting carded. It’s regenerative, like the magic pills at the convenience-store counter, only this might actually work.

The rook in this case is noted golfer and vintner Ernie Els, who technically still is in his first year on the 50-and-over PGA Tour Champions, thanks to the calendar-warping effects of COVID-19. The interrupted 2000 season was just folded into ’01 season, you see, in hopes the good and the awful might average out.

Rookie? Golf Hall of Famer, and four-time major champion, with 19 PGA Tour titles? In the same sentence? “Yeah, I’m all for that,” Els seconded Thursday, in advance of his first appearance at the Mitsubishi Electric Classic on Friday through Sunday at TPC Sugarloaf.

Great golfers can eye this second-wind tour in quite different ways. Some want to avoid it like an appointment with their proctologist. Some dabble. Some grab onto it with both hands, like a competitive lifeline.

Of a celebrated rookie class that has included such recent quinquagenarians as Phil Mickelson, Mike Weir and Jim Furyk, Els has been the most persistent performer on this tour. (Neither Mickelson nor Weir are in the field this week). He has played far more events than the others – 18 – while compiling a pair of victories and currently is second to Herr Age is Just a Number, Bernhard Langer, on the season-long Schwab Cup money list.

“I was looking forward to playing out here for some time,” Els said. “Into your late 40s, it’s tough to really get up for some events on the regular tour, and that was the case with me. I had some little niggles in my body, not major stuff, but I had hip stuff, lower-back stuff. It’s tough to compete as a 48-, 49-year-old against kids that are a bit more healthy.

“I’m out here now, and I’m having a great time. I’m playing new golf courses. This is almost new for me again (he last played TPC Sugarloaf in 2001, finishing 44th in the one-time PGA Tour event here). So, I’ve got to do a little bit more work in practice and get a good game plan going, but I’m really enjoying myself out here with these guys.”

Where can you sign up for this kind of midlife?

Els lifts his cap to display a full head of hair only in the early stages of whitening. “I haven’t colored my hair yet; I haven’t put implants in yet. I don’t know what a midlife crisis is,” he said gratefully.

His mirror hasn’t gone rogue on him yet; he looks as fit as ever. “I feel I’m in better shape now than maybe I was five, six, seven years ago. Yeah, feel really good.”

He is at a place where his competitive life and charitable interests intersect nicely. Players and fans attending the tournament Friday have been urged to wear blue to support the Els for Autism Foundation’s “Blue Out,” raising awareness of the condition. Els’ son, Ben, has autism spectrum disorder.

And Els seems to have enthusiasm to spare.

“I was going to play and see what it’s like, and if I didn’t like it I was going to maybe play on the other tour and around the world,” Els said. “But as I got to know this tour a little better – what it’s all about, the way the guys play, just the whole atmosphere out here – I really started liking it.”

Established players such as the last Mitsubishi Electric champion – Scott McCarron won in 2019 as there was no event last year because, well, you know why – wouldn’t be blamed if they started yelling at these kids to get off their lawn. Els, Furyk and Mickelson already are multiple winners on the over-50 circuit. Winning just got that much harder for everyone else. In fact, McCarron, 55 and hampered by a left ankle injury, hasn’t won since ’19. His average finish in the 19 events he’s completed since 2000 is 42nd.

“It’s hard to win anywhere, but the guys coming out are really good, and they’re hungry,” McCarron said.

“They were really good back in the day, and they’re still really good.”

Els won two of the first 10 PGA Tour Champions events he entered. But notably, he hasn’t won yet this calendar year, a situation he seems keen to remedy. He’s fresh off his best finish of 2021, a T-4 last week at Hoover, Ala.

“I feel things are starting to trend,” he said. “I like to play a schedule where we get busy. For a while there we played one week, then had four, five weeks off. I feel like the season’s starting to kick in now. There are some really nice events coming up, so I’m looking forward to getting going now. Yeah, it’s starting to heat up.”

All recent results notwithstanding, it is generally believed this rookie has real potential.

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