HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Ernie Els might’ve been the second happiest golfer at Augusta National last Sunday night when good friend Adam Scott slipped on the green jacket as the Masters champion.
Els, who tied for 13th last week, is part of a strong field at the RBC Heritage, which begins today. The 2012 British Open champion has had several close calls at Harbour Town Golf Links, but brings plenty of confidence — and the satisfaction of watching Scott win his first major championship — into this year’s tournament.
Els earned his fourth career major at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s this past July when Scott threw away a four-stroke lead with four holes remaining. Els consoled Scott before hoisting the claret jug, then made sure the Australian didn’t let the collapse derail him from contending in future majors.
“I’ve really made a point of getting on him a little bit and keeping him going forward,” Els said Wednesday. “We played a lot of golf and talked quite a bit. He really was motivated for it.”
Scott rallied to the top of the leaderboard in Sunday’s final round, then defeated Angel Cabrera in a playoff to become Australia’s first Masters champion.
It was a different sort of conversation the two shared after this major.
“Yeah, we had quite a few beers, both of us, when we spoke to each other,” said Els, smiling. “He’s very delighted, I can promise you, that he got a green jacket and I was delighted for him.”
The RBC Heritage features 14 of the world’s top 29 golfers in a week that’s typically a chance for the game’s best to grab a breather before the run-up to the U.S. Open. Several, including Scott and world No. 1 Tiger Woods, are doing just that. But there’s lots of star power and talented golfers at Harbour Town.
Brandt Snedeker, the 2011 champion here who shared the 54-hole lead a week ago, is the world’s highest-ranked player at No. 5. Luke Donald (No. 6), Matt Kuchar (No. 9) are others from the top 10 playing here.
Defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, ranked 20th, joins Els as current major winners here.
Jason Day, third at the Masters, was encouraged by another strong showing at Augusta National and by his countryman’s victory. Day tied for second with Scott at the 2011 Masters and the two exchanged texts in the midst of Scott’s demanding post-Masters media whirlwind.
Scott told Day he understood the disappointment at coming close again, yet appreciated the class Day showed in defeat.
“And I texted him back and said, ‘I’m glad it was you to be the first. It goes down in history forever, mate,’ ” Day recalled.
Day said Harbour Town’s layout fits his game and hopes to take advantage of the work he put in getting ready for the Masters. Snedeker, who famously cried after coming close at the Masters in 2008, found himself resolved to keep improving after this defeat. He had his first over-par round of the tournament with a 75 on Sunday and tied for sixth, five strokes out of the playoff.
“I think this one is easier because I know I’m going to be back,” he said.
Still, Snedeker had trouble sleeping Sunday night and didn’t go searching TV or the Internet for accounts of what happened. “I definitely didn’t seek out The Golf Channel,” he said.
He believes Harbour Town’s narrow fairways and postage-stamp sized greens could be the perfect pick-me-up after Augusta National.
“Obviously, the drive down is a big relief after last week,” Snedeker said. “The breath of fresh air after the stress.”
Els will be in the spotlight this week. On Friday, tournament organizers will team with “Els for Autism”on a number of initiatives to raise awareness of autism, highlight the importance of early detection and raise funds to help build the Els Center of Excellence which will serve people on the autism spectrum from ages 3-21.
Els’ 10-year-old son was diagnosed with autism.
“It’s something we want to do,” Els said of the center. “It will keep finding its legs as we go along.”
Els was proud Scott didn’t break after the British Open loss. The two played several practice rounds at Augusta National and Els was impressed with Scott’s focus. “He definitely was striking the ball really well,” Els said. “He was in a very nice, loose mood.”
That proved out last week with Scott’s satisfying triumph. Snedeker hopes his latest close call will lead to a major, overcoming obstacles like Scott did.
“If I keep banging on that door, it’s going to happen,” Snedeker said. “I know it is.”