ORLANDO -- The irony of keeping banker's hours on the PGA Tour is how broke a player can become -- or, more poignantly, how broken he can feel. Just ask Ernie Els, who until this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational hadn't made a cut in America since the Deutsche Bank Championship last September. Four major championships don't buy you a dispensation from doubt. Of course, neither do 14 majors, as Tiger Woods can attest. Els, who turned 45 in October, arrived at Bay Hill Club with a brittle psyche, the product of four missed cuts in a row to begin the year. When you have never missed more than two straight since joining the tour in 1994, you naturally start rifling through the medicine cabinet for that emergency supply of confidence only to find that, unfortunately, it comes neither in pill or liquid form. The Big Easy, who has just five top-10 finishes since his 2012 Open Championship victory at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, didn't lose his sense of humor during this recent string of early exits. "My friends back home were telling me what a great job I have not having to work weekends," Els said with a laugh Friday at Bay Hill.
What he did lose was his, well, easiness, the flow of his swing and the rhythm of good golf that a player feels without trying. But, suddenly, he might have just found it this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And in the strangest place. On Tuesday Els opted to practice at nearby Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, and he came across a familiar face on the driving range. Former tour player Larry Rinker, who only three weeks ago had accepted a job there as director of instruction, was beating balls. "I've known Larry … we go back about 20-something years," Els said. "He knows what it's like out here. We just started talking about different things in the game, the swing, the putting … and he really helped me." "I was hitting balls on the far side of the range, and he pulled up in a golf cart and said, 'Hello, laddie,'" said Rinker, who made 525 tour starts from 1982-2007 and posted two runner-up finishes and 85 top-25s. "He called it fate. I don't know, maybe it was an act of God. I'm out there just hitting balls and he comes along, and we just started talking. And out of that came a little bit of something that he can build on." Like, first and foremost, an option from recreational golf. With a 5-under-par 67 on Bay Hill's Championship Course, Els earned a place on the weekend tee sheet, and also emerged on the cusp of contention at 6-under 138, seven behind Morgan Hoffmann. The ray of hope couldn't come at a better time for a player who yearns to win a green jacket. Els owns two U.S. Open titles and two Claret Jugs, but winning the Masters would christen a career that includes 66 world-wide wins. "I always felt like that was the perfect golf course for my game," said Els, who twice has finished second at Augusta National Golf Club. "My expectations there have been pretty high because of that, and maybe that has been a little to my detriment. I try too hard, and I should just let it happen." Perhaps with Rinker's help, it could happen. Not only did he give Els a pep talk, he adjusted his left-hand grip on his putter, turning it over to make it stronger, or more on top. "That's how he used to putt," Rinker said. "He was missing them to the right, but we moved that left hand, and on the second putt, it was like ... over. He got it. That's how he used to putt. All of a sudden, old feelings started coming back in. "Bottom line is he is just trying to get back to the way he putted when he was probably the best par putter out here," Rinker added. "I've never seen anybody make as many 8-15 footers for par than he did when he was playing his best." Rinker didn't stop there, though. "After we got the left hand better, I went more into coaching mode. It was more about encouraging, more about telling him what a great player he was, more about seeing himself as a great putter again," Rinker explained. "It was not about mechanics. One of the biggest things I can do is try to help him believe in himself again with the putting change. But he's the magic. "Confidence is fragile, and it has to be earned. [Paul] Azinger always said that. Ernie is in that process in earning that back right now. Making the cut is a step up the mountain." Els agreed. "It's been a bit of a struggle lately," he said. "It was nice to hear a fellow player compliment you a little bit. I felt a little more like my old self." Of course, results need to follow. It's hard to build a game on talk alone. A two-time winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Els was hoping for more this weekend. A win is preferred; he hasn't won anything since the 2013 BMW International open on the European Tour. But executing good shots and making a few putts would be enough. For now. But the Masters looms, and, having slipped to 85th in the world, Els currently is not among the top-10 automatic picks for the International Team in the 12th Presidents Cup in South Korea. He has missed the biennial competition just once since 1996. "I told Pricey [International Team captain Nick Price] that if I didn't make it to save me a spot as a vice captain. One way or another, I want to be there," Els said. Then he caught himself.
"I plan to be playing though," he added. He said it confidently.