Originally Published: March 14, 2010

Globetrotter Els sets sights on Augusta

Sobel By Jason Sobel

In college hoops, Selection Sunday has become a major component of March Madness. In golf, Tiger Woods' inability to select a return to playing competitive golf and search for his next Sunday triumph has been a major component of the coverage, as we march toward the madness that could occur at the upcoming Masters.

During a week when the only news surrounding Woods was really that there wasn't any news, debate and discussion about this topic still trumped anything that was taking place on the course.

For those who are Tiger-ed out right now, don't worry; this column won't touch on the increasingly intriguing tale that is his apparently impending comeback. After all, by the time you're reading these words, new developments may be breaking anyway. For those seeking more on Tiger, you needn't worry, either; I'll produce an all-TW edition of the Weekly 18 prior to his return -- whether that comes next week in Orlando, two weeks later in Augusta or at another time and in another place.

Instead, the W18 will focus on Ernie Els' return to the winner's circle and other on-course news. Although there's one last thing on TW: No truth to the rumor that he called the Big Easy "selfish" for claiming a title and stealing his thunder.

And with that, let's talk Ernie ...

1. A world of difference

The letters "WGC" in front of CA Championship stand for "World Golf Championship" and although this particular tournament takes place in the United States each year -- along with two of the other three official "world" events -- it is co-sanctioned by every major tour around the globe.

So while it's important to note that Els' victory is just his second on the PGA Tour since 2004, we need to look beyond that for what it means to the player who has been a modern-day Gary Player, competing around the world to an extent that it's likely hindered his overall performance over the years.

No statistic more accurately proves how much worldwide golf he has played -- and how successful he has been -- than this: With the winner's check at Doral, he is now the all-time career money leader on the European Tour.

Els has now totaled 24,473,052 euros ($33.71 million) on the Euro circuit, surpassing previous leader Colin Montgomerie, with his victory on Sunday.

And considering each of the four majors also counts as a co-sanctioned event, he could be adding to that total very soon.

The perfectly monikered Big Easy owns three major championship titles, including two U.S. Open triumphs and one at the Open Championship. He has stated his lifelong goal is to bookend those with wins at the Masters and PGA Championship, which would make him the sixth player in history to earn the coveted career Grand Slam.

That's easier said than done, of course, but the first part of that puzzle comes three weeks from now, as Els will attempt to put the ghosts of Masters past in his rearview mirror while driving down Magnolia Lane. His record at Augusta National includes six top-10 results, with runner-up finishes in 2000 and '04, but since the second of those close calls he hasn't placed higher than T-27, missing the cut during each of the past three editions of the event.

"I'm 40 years old now. I've had a tough run," Els said after sealing a 4-shot win over Charl Schwartzel at Doral. "This is great. I really wanted to play well today. You saw me yesterday, I missed some of those short putts. I felt my game was in good shape. I just wanted to come out and prove it to myself for once."

He hasn't been without his demons over the years. In addition to those near-misses at Augusta, he's come oh-so-close at the other three majors, too. Factor in a putting stroke that has often left him looking like a tortured Tom Watson on midrange attempts, and Ernie is dead on when he declares that it's been a tough run.

There are few stories that would trump an Els victory at the Masters next month. Sure, if Woods returns and claims his fifth green jacket, that would warrant more coverage. A third victory for Phil Mickelson could garner greater cheers from the gallery. And maybe Watson or Fred Couples would be a bigger sentimental favorite.

But at the age of 40, after so many close calls and so much drama in his professional career, Els' long-awaited win bordered by the Augusta pines and azaleas would certainly tug on the heart strings a bit.

And don't think he isn't already focused on it. While being interviewed by NBC just after walking off the final green at Doral, he said, "I've got to take a lot of positives from this and heading to the Masters in a month."

For a player who has logged so many miles competing around the world, that short journey down Magnolia Lane while wearing a green jacket would likely be the greatest ride of his life.

Three up

2. Charl Schwartzel

On the morning prior to the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship last month, I was asked whether I believed Schwartzel could pull off the upset against Jim Furyk, who was the top-seeded player in that quadrant of the bracket.

"No, that would be impossible," I said at the time, "because Schwartzel isn't the underdog in this one."

I believed it, too. After all, Furyk hasn't won a tourney since 2007, while Schwartzel earned a pair of titles in back-to-back fashion on the European Tour in January alone.

As such, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the South African knocked off his U.S. counterpart that day. But it does come as a bit of a shock that with an additional match victory in that tournament, the T-9 finish was his first top-10 in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event after 26 previous tries.

At Doral, Schwartzel proved he isn't just a player who can feast on inferior fields. The 25-year-old hung with countryman Els -- who referred to him as his "little brother" throughout the week -- for most of the final round before finishing in solo second place.

"For me, it's probably been the biggest day that I've had playing in America," said Schwartzel, who was ranked 35th in the world entering the week. "You know, I've won on the European Tour, but haven't really done something spectacular here in the U.S. This was a good day for me."

When examining the next generation of great players, names like Hunter Mahan, Sean O'Hair, Anthony Kim, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler are often thrown about -- and for good reason -- but Schwartzel should be a reminder that not every top young golfer is currently plying his craft on the PGA Tour.

How good can he be? Will he turn into a multiple-major champion someday? Or just a nice player who can win once or twice per year? That remains to be seen, but for now it's very apparent that Schwartzel should be firmly entrenched on our radar screen when discussing the upcoming cream of the crop, proving he's no longer just an underdog.

3. LPGA parity

Fans of the LPGA will have to wait one more week for the tour to make its stateside debut with the inaugural edition of the KIA Classic at La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif.

In the meantime, ponder the results (at left) from what's being termed the Spring Asia Swing, as eight of the game's best players finished 11th or better in back-to-back weeks to start the season.

Obviously, Ai-chan is off to the best start, posting her second and third career LPGA victories, but Suzann Pettersen, Yani Tseng and Cristie Kerr aren't too far behind, with a pair of top-5 finishes for each.

Noticeably absent from this list are the game's two highest-ranked players. Lorena Ochoa finished T-18 and T-38, respectively, while Jiyai Shin was T-22 and T-3.

Certainly not poor performances from the world's best -- especially Shin's share of third a few weeks ago -- but the gap between them and the rest of the pack is narrowing considerably.

4. Bubba Watson

No, the tweeter extraordinaire has never won on the PGA Tour. Or the Nationwide Tour. Or anywhere else he has "officially" played as a professional.

That doesn't mean one of the game's longest hitters doesn't own any hardware. Two years ago, he took the unofficial CVS/Caremark Charity Classic title with teammate Camilo Villegas. And this past week, he earned a really big one.

If you've never heard of Seminole GC in Juno Beach, Fla., that's only because it's one of the most exclusive clubs around -- and because you obviously haven't been checking those ubiquitous "Best of" rankings.

The club held its annual member-pro tournament this past week -- and the field list was one that could put many regular-season PGA Tour events to shame, as the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ernie Els and Davis Love III were all involved.

In fact, just last year, Love went as far as to say of the event, "I played in my first major of the year the other day, the annual member-pro event at Seminole Golf Club." And when he and his partner won? "The in-box on my phone was filling up. Word was out: I had won my first major of the year."

This year's champion? Well, I had heard it was the big-bombing pro, but this is a place so exclusive that a Google search for "'Bubba Watson'+Seminole" launched only news of the Florida State University women's golf B-team winning the Bubba Watson Invitational a few years back.

Good thing there isn't much that Watson doesn't tweet, as he produced the news of his record-setting victory: "Just found out, me and my partner won both Net and Gross today! 1st time any team has won both!!"

Guess that's like winning two majors in one. Next up for Watson: His first "real" victory as a pro.

Three down

5. Phil Mickelson

After a third-round 72 at Doral, Mickelson remained in a scoring trailer for about 45 minutes, then ducked out a back door and eluded reporters who wanted to speak with him.

No, there weren't too many probing questions about the even-par score, but there were queries as to the extent of an injury suffered on his final full swing of the day, an approach shot into the 18th green.

Mickelson later released a statement, which read: "I stung it a little bit hitting into the ground. It's a little bit tender but these things usually go away in 12 to 24 hours, and I have done this before.''

It certainly appeared as if the stinger resolved itself in closer to 12 than 24, as Lefty came out strong in the final round, posting a 4-under 68 to finish in a share of 14th place.

While his elbow may no longer be bothering him, Mickelson's game has been out of joint over the season's opening three months.

A traditionally fast starter, he now owns results of 19th, T-45, T-8 and T-24 to go with that T-14 on Sunday. Solid? Sure, but hardly impressive for a guy currently ranked No. 3 in the world.

On the list of players who haven't taken advantage of Tiger Woods' early-season absence, Mickelson has to be considered the clubhouse leader. And for one who often plays his best golf during the opening few months of the year, this could portend a disappointing campaign in 2010.

6. American golfers

The CA Championship is a World Golf Championship event and that was evident on the leaderboard, with players from nine different countries represented in the top 12 and only two Americans -- Matt Kuchar at T-3 and Bill Haas at T-6 -- in that mix.

That should be considered good news for the global state of the game, but is it cause for concern here in the good ol' U.S. of A.? Last year, half of that top dozen at Doral were American-born players, including each of the first three on the board.

Then again, U.S. involvement in the Official World Golf Ranking is largely unchanged over the past half-decade. The chart to the left compares the American rankings prior to the CA Championship with those from the same time on the calendar during each of the previous four years.

While the number of elite U.S. players has remained consistent over this time, the amount of those on the next tier has steadily decreased by one-third since 2006.

What does this mean? Well, it's either a slight decline in the proficiency of American performers or a gradual increase in that of the international contingent.

Truth is, it's probably a little of both, but as the numbers prove, we shouldn't read too much into the lack of red, white and blue flags on the leaderboard this past week at Doral.

7. Robert Karlsson

Hockey has the Gordie Howe hat trick, which occurs when a player scores a goal, pockets an assist and gets in a fight all in a single game. Basketball has box score fillers, most notably Oscar Robertson, who once averaged a triple-double for an entire NBA season.

In golf, though, it's unusual for a player to fill out stat lines. Then again, scores of 2-3-4-5-6-7 during a round isn't unheard of; of course, doing so consecutively would be a pretty impressive feat -- or depressing, depending on whether it was ascending or descending order.

Karlsson took things a step further in his first round at Doral, though. The guy nicknamed "Scientist" concocted scores of eagle, birdie, par, bogey, double-bogey and triple-bogey all within the confines of a single afternoon, finishing with a 6-over 78.

You can watch golf for an awfully long time before witnessing a player posting those kinds of extremes.

For the record, Karlsson carded one eagle, one birdie, 10 pars, four bogeys, one double and one triple. Just to show how difficult that is, for the final three rounds, he had no eagles, eight birdies, 39 pars, seven bogeys and no doubles or triples.

It all led to scores of 78-70-73-72 and a 62nd-place result.

8. On the hot seat: Brittany Lincicome

Last year, Brittany Lincicome accomplished something that no other player -- man or woman -- in the history of the game has ever done. She won a major championship with an eagle on the final hole.

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LPGA for ESPN.comIn one of the more unique endorsement deals, Brittany Lincicome has partnered up with Mattel, longtime makers of Barbie dolls.

It's been nearly a year since Lincicome knocked a hybrid approach shot to within a few feet of the cup on the 72nd hole at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

She sat down on the Hot Seat this week to discuss that moment -- along with fishing, homeschooling and a new sponsorship deal with a famous doll.

Q: I'm confused. Am I supposed to call you Brittany or Barbie?
A: Brittany is fine. Barbie is just a new side of Brittany, I guess [laughs]. Everyone keeps asking if I'm going to change my nickname from Bam Bam to Barbie. I don't think so. I'm definitely going to stick with Bam Bam. That was my first nickname, so we're sticking with that.

Q: Oh, come on. You don't think some of your fellow players will start calling you Barbie instead?
A: Some of them have. Definitely the first couple of tournaments out, nobody really saw the logo because it's on my collar until a couple of days into it. But when they see it, they're like, 'Oh my gosh! Barbie? Mattel? Like, the actual Barbie?' And I'm like, 'Yes!' It's really quite funny when they finally notice it and the expressions on their faces; they're completely stunned, they don't know what to say and they're like, 'Oh! Brittany-Barbie!'

Their first response is that they want one; they want a Brittany golfer Barbie, but unfortunately they don't have that out yet.

Q: When will it be available?
A: You know, as of right now, I don't believe there is going to be a golf Barbie, per se, like the actual doll having golf clubs. But there is a kid's club, so kids can go out and buy a Barbie set of golf clubs, which is really cool. I actually got to meet the designers a couple of months ago.

You know how kids get taller with age and parents don't want to have to buy new clubs? Well, these clubs go up to 4 years. There's an inch-long piece that you screw into the shaft. It's a very cool concept and of course they have the Barbie logo on them, so hopefully it gets kids involved in golf and lets them see how great the sport is.

Q: You enjoy fishing and Texas hold 'em poker. You drive a truck. Not exactly the stereotypical Barbie, you know.
A: No, not normally. But it is funny -- you mentioned all of the things I love to do, but then again, come Friday or Saturday night, if I'm home with friends, I'm definitely going to put on the 4-inch heels and a nice outfit and do my hair, put on some makeup and go out and have a good time.

There are two different sides to me. Normally the girly side doesn't get to come out as much, so maybe with the Barbie family, I'll get to dress up at some events and get to be a little more girly, which I enjoy doing as much as fishing -- just don't do them together.

Q: You mentioned the Bam Bam nickname. I assume that came from hitting the ball a long way, right?
A: Yeah, some of my girlfriends on tour argue where I got the name from and who came up with it first, but it's definitely Bam Bam because I hit it far. It's either Bam Bam or it gets shortened to just Bam; in text messages, the girls will be like, 'Hey Bam, what's going on?'

But it's a pretty cool nickname. I have it on the back of my shoes, so it's great. My nickname at home used to be Snacks, because I would eat a lot, so I think it's a move in the right direction.

Q: You were second on the LPGA with an average driving distance of 272.1 yards per drive last year. How much of an advantage is that?
A: It's a huge advantage. These golf courses seem to get longer and longer every year, especially at the majors, which is why I think I do so well at the majors. They're so long, the greens are so fast, the rough is thick. So having shorter clubs into all of these greens makes it so much easier. I'm definitely working on short game and short wedges, just so I can kind of capitalize on the courses getting longer and fitting more to my game.

Q: We always hear about the men's game often turning into bomb-and-gouge strategy. Is that as much of an issue in the women's game?
A: You know, we seem to work more on our short game out here, especially the shorter hitters; they're hitting longer irons into the green. Even the Koreans, their short games are so great because they don't hit it so far off the tee.

We do a lot of short game and putting out on our tour, unlike the men. I was watching the tournament last week and they had, like, three holes that were 480-500 yards, par-4s. That's crazy! But yeah, we work more on the short game on the LPGA than the PGA Tour.

Q: Your title defense at the Kraft Nabisco is coming soon. Looking back on that almost a year later, what memories are still in your mind and what do you think of what you accomplished?
A: Obviously that hybrid shot will be a shot that I take with me for the rest of my life; it will be a shot that I reflect on if I'm in a tough situation and I need to pull out a great shot. Just knowing that I had the confidence to do it with that club, obviously I can do it with any club. Even being on Sunday, final round, final hole, needing to do something spectacular -- it's just great for your confidence level.

And Kraft is, just the people who run that event -- the volunteers, the staff, everybody involved -- they're just such great people. They're very welcoming when we come there. So it's just a great environment. It's fun to play that golf course. It's a tough golf course, but keep it in the fairway, keep it in play and you're going to score very well.

Q: Did you know that's the only eagle ever in a men's or women's major to win on the final hole?
A: I did know that. I was confused at first; you know, Karrie Webb holed out, but that was just to get into a playoff. So for a while I was kind of confused, but I definitely know that now, which is a very cool honor. Hopefully that sticks around for a long time.

Q: Is that hybrid club still in the bag?
A: Oh, yes. That will be a club that probably won't leave my bag for a while.

Q: You talked about fishing. What's it like being out there? What's the biggest fish you've ever caught?
A: I actually just bought a house on the water about two months ago; it's actually a condo, so I have my boat on the lift on the water. You can get to the gulf in about five minutes. It's so close, it's so great to be able to hop in your boat and go.

I just love being on the water. It's very relaxing. Just kind of takes your mind off of everything that you're doing. You can just kind of think about whatever or not think at all and just kind of enjoy being out there. What I'm catching just depends on who I'm with. If I'm taking some girls from the tour or some girls from my area, we're catching catfish or something that we don't even know what it is -- as long as we're catching something, that's fine.

But if I go with my brothers or someone who knows what they're doing, we're catching snook or redfish or grouper -- obviously, keeping those and filleting them up and eating them. So it's kind of fun to go out with either one, because you either catch silly stuff and you have girls kind of screaming when they catch something, which is really funny, or I go with my brothers and we catch something that we can eat. Just being on the water and catching anything -- I'm not sure on the size, though; I'm not sure what my largest is.

Q: And do you have to bait the hooks for the other players you bring out there?
A: Oh yeah, that's what I'm normally doing 90 percent of the time. I feel really bad for my brother, because I never used to be able to touch the shrimp -- one of them pricked me once and I swore that he bit me. So my brother always had to bait my hook for me growing up.

Now I feel really bad for him. He never got to do any fishing, because he was always baiting my hook and that's kind of what I do when I take the girls out. I'm always constantly putting the bait on their hooks or they're getting snagged on something and I have to tie a new line for them. It's fun, though. I enjoy it.

Q: OK, well, I want names. Who's the most squeamish one out there?
A: Oooh, that's a good one. Kristy McPherson has been out there with me. I believe Angela Stanford has been out there. Jenny Gleason from the Futures Tour -- she was probably the funniest. She was screaming. Even my mom, she's pretty funny. She caught a shark once and she was freaking out, she dropped the pole -- it was really funny. She didn't even get it in the boat. It was still in the water and she just saw it and was freaking out.

Q: Speaking of your mom, you were homeschooled as a kid. What's the worst grade you ever received?
A: [Laughs] You can't get a bad grade from your mom! Yeah, from sixth grade through high school, I had a lady who tutored me in math, but mom did 90 percent of the other stuff. It was good. Obviously, it gave me more time to practice and work on my game. Practice rounds were on Friday, so I was missing a lot of school and they couldn't be lenient with me because I was missing too many, so the home school was great for what I was trying to accomplish and it seems to be more and more kids are doing it these days. So that's really cool to see.

Three wishes

9. I wish I could attend the St. Patrick's Day celebration at the White House.

Hey, a golf writer can dream, right? I promise I wouldn't bother President Obama or anything and I'd keep a modicum of responsibility to my "celebration" of the holiday.

In fact, I'd just like to hang with Padraig Harrington for the day.

That's right. The world's most famous Irish golfer has accepted an invitation to join the festivities on Wednesday -- even if he doesn't know what to expect.

"I'm looking forward to it," the three-time major champion said prior to the CA Championship. "It's something different. You know, obviously President Obama is one of the most charismatic people of the world, one of the most powerful people in the world; you want to meet these people and see what they are like and get your own judgment on things, if you know what I mean. And you can tell a lot when you meet somebody, so I'm looking forward to that. Plus, I've never been to the White House."

Me neither, which is now reason No. 32,907 why I should have worked on my game more as a kid.

And Harrington will need someone to hang with at the White House, considering his wife, Caroline, will not be making the trip and he hardly knows anyone else who has been invited.

"I know [Irish boxer and soccer player] Katie Taylor got an invite, so she will be there," he said. "Besides that, I don't know anybody else. I'm sure there will be plenty of people. I'm sure there will be plenty of people I'll know when I get there, but as I say, because of being on the road and traveling, I haven't got too much into the details. Just know I'm going."

Of course, it's very possible that the reason Harrington was offered an invitation was simply as an excuse for the president to receive a few free tips from one of the game's best players.

"He's a left-hander, isn't he? Obviously, he is very keen on golf," said Harrington, who will make it a daytrip prior to competing in the Transitions Championship. "I don't know, maybe we will talk about golf. Who knows?"

At least Paddy gave Obama something to talk about on Sunday. With a final-round 72, he finished in a share of third at Doral -- his first top-10 of the season in five U.S. starts.

If he needs someone to tick off his accomplishments for other partygoers, I'm available. Pass the Guinness.

10. I wish the newest wrinkle to the EA Sports golf game will be as cool as it sounds.

Some people make resolutions to get into shape. Others try to eat better. Me? I'm calling something to which I can actually stick: I resolve to play more video games.

I'm embarrassed to say it, but I just haven't had the time to play many video games these days. (What, you think this column writes itself?) Most of these titles could be considered frivolous pursuits, but the EA Sports Tiger Woods series could actually serve as a useful research tool for a golf writer.

At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I haven't checked out the wildly popular golf game in a few years, but if recent news is any indication, this one is going to be a must-play.

According to this piece by Jon Robinson of ESPN Video Games, "Tiger '11" will include a game-within-the-game that blows away any stroke-play or match-play tournament: The Ryder Cup.

That's right -- you will now be able to control the virtual outcome of the biennial competition between the United States and Europe.

That ... is ... awesome.

"As you're playing, you can switch between matches after each hole," said Travis Sailer, an associate designer for the game. "It really becomes part of the strategy because you're trying to figure out which match you want to switch to. So if you're playing as Tiger and you see Anthony Kim is down against Ian Poulter, then you can jump to Kim in between holes, play a few holes as Kim and hope to get him back in the match. Then once you take the lead with Kim, you might want to switch back to somebody else."

As if that's not all, the online mode to this part of the game sounds even cooler.

"This definitely has a death-match feel to it where you go into the online team play lobby and hop in and play and you can play anywhere up to 12 versus 12," Sailer said. "You're totally connected and all of the matches are going on concurrently and you see streaks of your team's balls and the other team's balls and they're colored specifically to each team. And then you can also talk to your team the whole time over voice, so you can strategize about whether you should play aggressive or safe, and there will also be tournament updates going on as you play so you always know where you stand throughout the match."

Sold. Count me in. I'll even play against the rest of your duffers in cyberspace, under the psudeonym "MulliganMan" or something corny like that -- as long as you promise to give me a stroke a hole. Wait, it's been a while. Make that 2.

Oh, and if this column suddenly appears much, much shorter right around the time this new edition of the game is released, well, I think you'll understand why.

11. I wish there were more players in the WGC-CA Championship field.

Last year, there were 80 competitors in the field at Doral. This year? Just 68.

What happened? I posed this question to a PGA Tour official who sorted it all out for me.

Previously, four tours -- the Australasian, South African, Asian and Japan circuits -- were offered spots for the top three on their respective money lists; this year, each was limited to just two qualifiers.

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour and European Tour each used to have two cutoff dates during which the top 10 on either could become eligible for this tournament. This was cut back to one date for each tour, leaving no second-chance opportunities for players to sneak into the field.

These measures were taken in an effort to limit the number of competitors to "around 70" -- and that's exactly how many qualified this year. All told, there were 68 players who took part in the festivities at Doral, with Ryo Ishikawa skipping it in favor of his high school graduation and Tiger Woods staying home because, well, just because.

I guess congratulations are in order to tournament organizers for scaling back 12.5 percent of the field and reaching their stated goal, but I'm still left with one puzzling question: Why?

Not that I think the CA Championship -- or any WGC event -- should be a full-field contest that includes 156 players, but fewer than half that number seems too small. After all, when was the last time you watched a tournament and complained that there were "too many golfers in the field"?

The PGA Tour brass -- which jointly runs this tourney with other world tours -- should be applauded for recognizing that some fields need to be more elite ... but it should also be condemned for trying to stretch this to obtrusive limits.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.


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