SAN DIEGO — Ernie Els was walking to the practice range Wednesday at Torrey Pines when he was stopped by a security guard who has not spent much time around golf tournaments.
“Are you a professional?” the guard asked him.
This is new territory for Els, a three-time major champion and former No. 1 in the world.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Big Easy starts a new season without assurances that he will be at the Masters Tournament. He might not be eligible for two World Golf Championships over the next six weeks.
And for the first time since he cares to remember, Els finds himself looking at the world ranking. He is at No. 57, and that’s after getting a boost from a runner-up finish last week at the Volvo Champions event in South Africa.
“I look at it now,” Els said. “I never used to. When you’re comfortably in the top 10, top 20, you don’t look at these things. Now, I’m on the other side of the wheel. I’ve got to play myself into events. I’ve got to get into the Masters, into Doral, into the Match Play. And that’s fine with me. And if I don’t get in, that’s fine with me.
“I feel like I’m going to have a good year,” he said. “I feel good about it.”
For what he’s trying to accomplish, being at the Farmers Insurance Open might seem like a peculiar choice.
Most of golf’s biggest stars are halfway around the world in Abu Dhabi this week, which includes Tiger Woods.
“The Middle East made the most sense,” Els said. “There are stronger fields, more points, and I need the points to get into the top 50 and all that. But I’ve made my decision. I’ve done that for so many years. It’s important for me to be home now. And if I play well here, I’ll still get into the top 50.”
Torrey Pines offers a deeper field, yet only one of the top 10 in Dustin Johnson. Phil Mickelson is the biggest star this week at No. 15 in the world, no longer having to share the stage with Woods in his hometown.