Triumphant Ernie Els has Georgia on his mind at Bay Hill

Published March 29, 2010

| Reuters

ORLANDO (Reuters) - Ernie Els had next week's U.S. Masters deeply etched in his mind as he put the finishing touches on a two-shot victory at the rain-hit Arnold Palmer Invitational on Monday.

The South African will tee off at Augusta National in Georgia next week as one of the favorites for the opening major of the year, with confidence running sky-high after winning his last two PGA Tour events.

"You try and downplay it, but you do think about it. Today I thought about it on the 72nd hole. I was like: 'Okay, you're standing at Augusta and you've got to hit this hard fade,'" Els told reporters of the Masters after carding a one-under-par 71 at Bay Hill.

"Even though there are different circumstances, you think of shots that you're going to be playing over there.

"You try and have your short game very sharp, and that's what I've been doing," Els said of the special demands made by the heavily contoured, slick greens at Augusta National.

"I hadn't won for such a long time. Now, to be able to feel like I can tee it up and play with these boys, it feels good."

ANXIOUS MOMENTS

On Monday, he sealed his 18th PGA Tour win with an 11-under total of 277 at Bay Hill, surviving a few anxious moments over the last four holes with an impeccable short game.

Above all, though, Els signaled to his peers and fans he is close to the form that lifted him to number one in the world rankings in 1998 and made him a perennial contender at majors.

"I want to make this a special year," said the South African, whose form had dipped in recent seasons, mainly due to his putting. "But I still have a lot of work left and there are a lot of majors left, and that's going to be fun now."

A double U.S. Open champion who also won the British Open in 2002, Els has posted six top-10s at the Masters, including runner-up spots behind Fijian Vijay Singh in 2000 and American left-hander Phil Mickelson in 2004.

Asked whether he felt he was owed a victory at Augusta National, Els replied: "No, I can't say that. In 2004, Phil just played great. He beat me. I didn't beat myself.

"In 2000, I felt I left some shots out there when I finished second to Vijay. Vijay birdied 18 to win by three but it was a lot closer than that.

"I've had a lot of top 10s there and stuff like that but I don't want to say that (I am owed victory). I think I'll jinx myself saying that," Els added with a broad grin.

The Masters runs from April 8-11.

(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue/Ian Ransom)

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