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On the Road with Ernie: Bay Hill

Coming off a difficult week at the Bay Hill Invitational, Ernie prepares for the Tour's "fifth major" this week - THE PLAYERS Championship on the famed Stadium Course at the TPC of Sawgrass. Find out what the key to winning will be this week and more, in this edition of On the Road with Ernie...

Well, what can I say? This was a disappointing tournament for me…and I made such a good start, as well. You know, I’ve been trying to remember the last time I shot three consecutive rounds over par. Apart from last year’s Masters, where I played badly but was still trying to shake off a bad dose of flu, I reckon it’s got to be at least five years ago. That puts my performance at Bay Hill into some perspective. If I had to pinpoint the main problem, I’d say it was my iron play. After that first-round 67, I hit only half the greens I looked at. It was a struggle, to be honest with you.

It came totally out of the blue. I mean, my first round was great. I tell you it was nice to get off to such a good start; basically play a solid round of golf without any bogeys. It felt like the hard work of the last couple of weeks had started to pay off. The highlight was an eagle on the 6th, where I hit a smooth 3-wood 240 yards over the water onto the green and drained a 50-foot putt. That felt good!

Having struggled in the early rounds in quite a few tournaments recently, this was just the kind of start I was looking for. It put me right in the mix, which is obviously where I want to be. I was really looking forward to building on that.

Then on Friday I played a strange round of golf - the total opposite of the day before. I made a bad start, but then I recovered to get it back to 7-under for the tournament, only to throw it away again with a poor finish. In the end, it was a 73.

On its own, that wouldn’t have been a total disaster. But I followed it up with a 74, where I made too many mistakes. It was a sloppy round of golf. That was me totally out of the tournament, basically.

On Sunday I guess I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of my sails a bit. I kept plugging away, but my game just wasn’t there. I was heading for level par or thereabouts, but I made double-bogey on the par-3 17th and shot 75. It just about summed up my week. Like I said in my introduction, I wasn’t hitting enough greens; just not giving myself even a chance to shoot a decent score.

Anyway, let’s move on. I don’t want to beat myself up, because all in all I cannot complain too much about the way I’ve come back from my knee injury. I could be sitting here today without any confidence at all and hitting the ball all over the place. But I’m not. I’ve had some good weeks and the knee feels pretty good.

Physically I’m fairly satisfied with where I am right now. These next few weeks I need to keep working on my game, because it will come; I just have to be patient. Swing-wise, I need to develop a bit of a flatter plane through the ball. I’ve tended to get a little bit steep, so I’m trying to flatten it out a little bit through the hitting area. I think part of the reason for that is maybe I’ve been compensating in the rest of my body for the slight weakness in my knee, but like I said, that’s improving all the time. I think my swing will start to benefit from that as the weeks go by.

Coming up this week…

It’s become a tradition that one of the strongest fields of the year assembles at the Players Championship, which starts this Thursday, to tackle Pete Dye’s famous Stadium Course. Last year we had every one of the top-50 ranked golfers teeing it up and 81 of the top-100. And yet the winning score, 9-under par, was the highest on the 2005 PGA Tour rota, No wonder they call this the fifth major championship.

Last year was a battle. We got interrupted by bad weather several times and the final round had to be played on Monday. Believe me, that last day was brutal. It was like 30mph gusting winds and the scoring average for the field was 76.5, which I’m told is the highest in the tournament’s history. And how about this for a stat - last year not a single golfer in the entire field managed a bogey-free round on either of the last two days! That’s how tough it was. In the circumstances, the 69 I shot on Sunday was one of my best rounds of the year. Bit of a shame I was too far back to get myself into contention.

Key to Winning This Week

The thing is; this golf course isn’t what you’d call forgiving. It’s not one of the longest courses we play all year - actually, at a little over 7,000 yards it’s probably one of the shortest - but it punishes you if you make even half-a-mistake. There are several holes where there’s almost no margin for error.

Main priority is you’ve got to hit it in the fairway, because the greens are usually firm and fast. You need to be hitting your approach shots from the ‘short stuff’ so that you have good control of your golf ball; otherwise, you’re going to struggle. Look at last year’s winner Fred Funk. No one hits more fairways than Freddie. And he made it count. It was a great performance.

Despite what happened at Bay Hill, I like my chances this week. My driving has been coming along nicely, so I feel pretty confident in that department. And while last week was pretty much a disaster on the scoring front, I couldn’t pin much of the blame on my putter. Hopefully I can make some putts this week. The key thing for me on a golf course like TPC is to play the percentages a bit more; you know, not be too aggressive and instead make par my friend. Shooting four good, solid rounds of golf is my primary goal. We’ll see where that leaves me on Sunday night.

I’ll write again next week and tell you all about it.

Bye for now, then.

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