Ernie Els eyes elusive victory at Frys

SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- The caddie drama that spiced up the golf world this year was not limited to the game's top-ranked players. Ernie Els, struggling through his worse season, contributed as well.

The Big Easy has had a longtime caddie relationship with Ricci Roberts, who worked for him for all three major titles and 57 victories around the world. But over the course of nearly two decades, they have had their share of breakups as well.

"I lost count,'' Roberts said Saturday at CordeValle Golf Club, where he is on the bag again for Els, who is tied for second through three rounds of the Frys.com Open. "You just never know, do you? Your guess is as good as mine. It's like a bad marriage.''

Roberts was laughing, and no doubt it was nice to see Els, 41, shoot a 67 that put him just two strokes behind winless Briny Baird and tied with Paul Casey heading into the final round.

Els and Roberts hooked up again last week at the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland as Els tries to emerge from the worst slump of his career. His last victory on the PGA Tour came at the 2010 Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he won the South African Open in December. But in 2011, there has not been a single top 10 worldwide.

You have to go back to 1992 to find the last time Els did not post a top 10 on the PGA Tour -- when he was 22.

"Tee to green, he hits the ball better than any guy out here,'' Roberts said. "If he putted like some of these youngsters, he'd be winning six or seven tournaments a year. He's been patient this week and just hung in there. Probably left a few out there.

"He's had a terrible year for a player of his caliber. Not one top 10. It's all a confidence thing, and I think he'll feel a bit of pressure [Sunday]. But if he keeps doing the same thing, makes a few putts, he's got every chance to win.''

Els' confidence hit a low at the Players Championship in May, where he missed the cut and soon after started experimenting with the belly putter.

Earlier that week, he had been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in a ceremony attended by Roberts, a South African who had been working for Darren Clarke.

That brought another twist to the player-caddie relationship. Roberts was scheduled to work for Clarke at a European Tour event the week of the Players Championship, but he decided to head to Florida for the special occasion.

"I spoke to Chubby [Chandler, Clarke's manager and also Els' at the time] and told him I wanted to come down because I thought it was the right thing to do," Roberts said. "There was some miscommunication with Darren. He didn't know.''

Clarke hired another caddie, John Mulrooney, and they ended up winning the tournament -- the Iberdrola Open -- that week. It was Clarke's first victory in three years, and he would go on to win the British Open, wins that Roberts might have been a part of otherwise.

"He won with a different guy and decided to keep him,'' Roberts said. "It worked out for him; he went on to win the Open Championship. I went to the induction. I worked for [Els] for 18 years. I had a lot of success with him. I lost out in one way, but things swing around. Maybe it'll pay off in another way.''

Perhaps with a victory on Sunday.

Els, always a world traveler, made the long journey to this Fall Series event from Scotland because one of his main sponsors, SAP, is involved in the CordeValle complex.

While the travel was brutal and maybe it is a bit surprising that Els is here, a victory would go a long way at this point.

"I haven't been in this position all year,'' Els said. "I don't think your memory disappears after 20 years of being out here. So this is what I've been working toward, especially after [missing the cut at] the PGA.

"I changed a lot of things and feel that the work I've put in is starting to come through. I'm starting to feel comfortable on the things I've been working on. I think the FedEx race [he made it to the third tournament, the BMW Championship] was good for my game. I kind of scraped through, and I had a lot of pressure on me and my game. You're just trying to survive. So I feel that's helped me, and then obviously the work. I don't think you forget how to win.''

As for the caddie situation, Els had been alternating between Roberts and former NHL player Dan Quinn. For most of the year, he employed caddie Mike Kerr, who had worked mostly on the European Tour and had a stint with Trevor Immelman.

But Els' tough year led to some changes, and he employed Quinn again before settling on Roberts.

"My game was just out of sorts,'' Els said. "We've had many big, big wins. He understands me. I understand him. [Sunday] we're in a good position. We're in a good place.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.