Ernie Els is one of the most recognizable golfers in the world.
When it comes to PGA Tour Champions events, however, Els is still just a rookie. He’s in his first year on tour after turning 50 in October.
“You have to be on your game, you know?” Els said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been preaching to my guys last year in the Presidents Cup, I said get on your game and play at an elite level. That’s what the guys do ... these guys can make a lot of birdies.”
The four-time major winner and World Golf Hall of Fame member has to worry only about himself at the Hoag Classic at Newport Beach Country Club. Going into the last day, Els is in a position to win for the first time on the senior circuit.
Els shot a seven-under-par 64 in cooler conditions Saturday and sits at 12 under through two rounds. That has him one shot up on first-round leader David Morland IV and Scott McCarron.
The three leaders will be in the final group Sunday and tee off from hole No. 1 at 12:30 p.m.
Ken Tanigawa and Ken Duke are tied for fourth at 10 under. Newport Beach resident Fred Couples, a two-time event winner in 2010 and 2014, is at nine under along with Robert Karlsson of Sweden and Chris DiMarco.
Els, playing in his third event of the year, did not have a perfect round Saturday. He bogeyed three par-fours — Nos. 5, 12 and 14. But he also had eight birdies and he made an eagle on No. 15 for the second straight day, albeit after making a much shorter putt than Friday.
“I hit a nice drive and a five-iron to about, what was it, 12 or 14 feet?” he said. “It was a really nice putt to go in because I bogeyed the previous hole. So it was really a nice momentum swinger and I made a good [birdie] on 17 and a good one on 18. A lot to play tomorrow, but I’m in nice position.”
Morland IV, who shot a 10-under 61 on Friday, followed that up with a 70 on Saturday. That left him tied with McCarron, who finished the second round by birdieing three of the last four holes.
McCarron, last year’s Charles Schwab Cup winner and PGA Tour Champions player of the year, has never won the Hoag Classic. But he has finished in the top 10 each of his previous four times out. He tied for second in 2018 and tied for third last year.
“Just tried to stay patient all day,” said McCarron, who had five birdies and three bogeys on his scorecard. “It was very difficult. Hole locations were tough, and I hit a lot of good putts that just weren’t quite going in. Yet today was a day I kind of had to stay patient a little bit, and I did a good job of that.”
A run by Couples, 60, on the final day would certainly be to the delight of the hometown fans. He would be the first person to win the tournament three times.
Couples, who had five birdies in his bogey-free round of 66 on Saturday, said he is excited to see Els do well at an event that’s a fan favorite. Couples won the event when he was a PGA Tour Champions rookie in 2010.
“When you get a guy like Ernie, he doesn’t want to play in front of 30 people,” Couples said. “It’s kind of not conducive for a guy who’s just coming off the PGA Tour and 5,000 people watch him every round. So when he plays here, he plays like he is, he’s going to get the galleries and enjoy it. In my opinion, that’s what we need for people to come out and play our tour. It’s fun.”