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It’s unfair to Ernie Els to cite him as an example of close but no cigar — crossword puzzle fans know Els as the three-letter answer to the familiar clue “Won two U.S. Opens.” However it was Els, always a few strokes off the lead, who put this idea in my head Sunday as I watched the latest Open on TV. Els was a little too far behind Tiger Woods and the other leaders to deserve stroke-by-stroke coverage. But whenever he lined up a birdie putt the NBC telecast shifted to him — one or two birdies and he’d be in the mix.
These putts weren’t for all the marbles. They were to put Els in reach of the marbles. And every medium-length birdie putt I saw him take — the kind you make if you’re going to win — he missed. Bad putting day, I thought. Later in the afternoon NBC showed Els lining up par putts instead. The drama had shifted: a bogey or two and Els would drop completely out of contention.
These were also pressure putts. The further back Els finished the less money he’d earn. And instead of being listed among the top finishers he’d sink back among the also-rans. But there was no danger of these putts giving him a chance to win.
He sank them. Dead center.
And I wondered, does golf have an expression for someone who putts like that? Or, to widen the lens, for the golfer who makes the shots he needs to make so long as they don’t make him conspicuous? Just off the pace is a good place to be in a horse race or a mile run, but in golf it’s possible to hide there.
Is this something Tiger Woods has done to the sport — gotten other players to think the only way to win is to lurk a couple lengths behind where he might not notice them, and hope he pulls up lame? Well, Woods was lame but he didn’t pull up.