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Winning a major in the Tiger Woods era is an exceptional feat, says Ernie Els. (Franklin/Getty Images)

Els' focus this week is mostly between his ears

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Ernie Els has tightened up his swing and reunited with his longtime caddie, and likes the state of his game. He can win this week, he says, if he can keep cool and stay patient.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - The man they call the Big Easy wasn't.

Ernie Els lost his patience. It's as simple as that, and when he did, Els all but lost his chance to win the 137th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale last month.

The kiss of death was the triple bogey he made on the par-3 14th during the first round. Els couldn't shake it off, and he followed with a bogey at the par-5 15th and a double at the next. When the round was over, the affable South African - who had made the turn in contention at 1 over - had shot a big, fat 80.

"I felt like I played better than my score indicated up to that point," Els recalled, thinking back to the triple. "I felt I played pretty good. I had a couple of three-putts and I missed a lot of putts, so I felt like I should have been even or even one-under par at that point.

"Then when I hit that shot right on the par 3, I really lost my cool a little bit and I lost my patience, which through the years have really helped me in majors, keeping my patience. That's why I think I've had a lot of top-10s in majors is I haven't lost it."

The 80 was Els' highest score since an 81 in the final round of the 2006 Memorial Tournament. He had to shoot 69 in the second round just to make the cut on the number - and later matched that score on Sunday on the way to a pretty phenomenal tie for seventh given his start. The finish was Els' 27th top-10 in 64 majors.

Stay patient, though, as he didn't that day at Birkdale, and the three-time major champ could add the third leg of the career Grand Slam to a resume that includes 16 PGA Tour wins and 44 more worldwide at Oakland Hills this week.

Els won his first two majors, both U.S. Opens, before he turned 27 and he added the Open Championship in 2002. He's also been second six times, including the first three majors in 2000, the latter two runners-up coming as the game's No. 1 player embarked on his "Tiger Slam." So the opportunities are precious few.

"We're playing in the era of the next greatest player, and winning a major in this era means a lot," Els said. "Not that it didn't mean a lot in previous times, but this is a big kind of decade that we are in. ... To win a major now, you make a huge step in your career, a huge step.

"They are so much bigger, and they only come around a couple of times a year, so it's all about trying to pace yourself, getting your game in shape for the big ones, and then see if you can perform better under huge pressure. It's the ultimate test in golf."

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Els would love to have won more majors in the Tiger era, but he knows he's not alone. He doesn't care about the critics, and he's not ready to give up, either.

"I'm 38 years old, and I've just gone to a new teacher and I'm working as hard as I ever have on my game and trying to win more," Els said. "We'll talk about this again when I retire, and that's probably in another hopefully 12 years, touch wood. So I've got a lot of time left. I'm in pretty good shape, so I feel I've got a lot more to give and to prove to myself.

"I think I'm done trying to prove other people right or wrong. So I'm basically doing this for myself and for my family.

Els, who ended a four-year victory drought at The Honda Classic earlier this year, is ready for that ultimate test this week. He's pleased with the changes he and Butch Harmon are making to his swing. He's got his long-time caddy, Ricci Roberts back on the bag, joking that their on-again, off-again relationship of 16 years is like a "bad marriage."

Not to mention, he's got history at Oakland Hills after tying for fifth when the U.S. Open came to Ben Hogan's "monster" in 1996. Rees Jones' renovations have the Donald Ross gem playing similarly to the way it did 12 years ago even with the advances in technology. And the sloped greens remain "some of the toughest you'll ever see," he said.

"As golfers, we have pretty good memories," said Els, who came to this Detroit suburb last week to reacquaint himself with Oakland Hills. "I had a good feel still of what I did back in '96 and what I have to do this year. I remember I was hitting nice power fades off the tees, and I just felt quite comfortable with that again this week, and I feel like I can hit that fade; and leaving yourself makeable putts or where you can two-putt from.

"And even the greens are soft like it was in '96. I remember we had a huge storm here before the tournament started and that kept the greens soft. So that also helped scoring obviously around here, and the greens are pretty receptive this week again. So I've got a pretty good feel again still of what I want to do."

Even more so after Els spent time with Harmon at his teaching facility in Las Vegas before the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational last week. He began working with Harmon earlier this year, seeking a new set of eyes after a long-term relationship with David Leadbetter, who remains a good friend despite the split.

Together Els and Harmon have tightened the 38-year-old's swing, making sure his lower body is in synch with his upper body. The results continue to impress. Els didn't putt well the first two days at Firestone last week, using 65 strokes on the greens, but he got his feel back over the weekend in shooting rounds of 69 and 68.

"So I feel quite excited about this event this week," Els said. "I feel like I have a reasonably good chance at making a good showing, and hopefully I have a chance on Sunday. I'm striking the ball quite nicely and swinging nicely. Just a matter of, you know, staying patient and doing my thing."

He learned that lesson the hard way at Birkdale.

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