It Ain't Easy Being Three

[photopress:els.jpg,full,alignleft]Let me start by saying I’ve always enjoyed watching Ernie Els. Straight out of graduate school, I remember seeing him in what must have been 1998 at the Canadian Open. I remember that he caused quite a stir among the gallery when he walked to the first tee and his long, smooth and languid swing was a thing of beauty. He seemed to be completely unfazed by the excitement surrounding him, put his peg in the ground and smacked one down the fairway. It would be one of the last times Els appeared at the Canadian Open. I guess he didn’t care for Glen Abbey because after shooting 70-77 to miss the cut, he never returned.

However, he did continue to be one of the most notable and successful players in the world though, winning more than 60 times all over the world including two U.S. Opens and a British Open. For a while he appeared to be one of only two players that could really compete with Tiger Woods. Els had it all — length, an inventive short game and a greater stroke on the greens. He was the third ranked player in the world when he tore up his left knee boating with his children and underwent surgery. The injury was downplayed at the time as simply serious. Those in the know indicated there were doubts about whether Els would ever return to golf.

He did, but not as the same player. He dropped a number of tournaments he should have won and his once glorious putting stroke disappeared through much of 2006 and 2007, though Els did proclaim that he’d like to challenge Tiger for the No. 1 spot in the world (add him to a list that includes Rory Sabbatini and others who have made similar remarks). The situation didn’t seem likely to change in 2008, as Els allowed a surging Tiger Woods to soar by him in the final round at Dubai. Suddenly Els didn’t look so big and the game didn’t look easy.

Then this weekend Els suddenly reemerged on the PGA Tour, winning the Honda Classic in U.S. Open-like conditions by posting a solid Sunday score and daring those on the course to catch him. So where does this leave Els? Apparently even he doesn’t know.

“I didn’t realize that Tiger was going to win 10 times or more since I said that,” Els told reporters this weekend. “I definitely said that because I really needed something, some kind of a goal for me. I am 38 right now, and I can quite easily go and enjoy my kids and go build golf courses and stuff. But I really want to achieve a lot in the game and I still want to win a lot.

“I just felt that’s the kind of goal for me to really strive for and practice for. So I’m not sure where I am right now, but we’ll see.”

That Els has to clarify that he still wants to “win a lot,” demonstrates that a lot of people question his resolve. Is he really willing to put in the time needed to challenge Woods. The answer so far appears to be no — though a spirited battle with Woods in single competition at the Presidents Cup prior to his knee injury demonstrated he is one of the few that can take Tiger on.

But even after his duel in the dark with Woods, he still apparently struggled with the psychology of taking on the world’s best player:

Jos Vanstiphout, the Belgian sports psychologist, once observed that Els suffered from ‘Tigeritis’ after Woods came on the scene. When Els won The Open at Muirfield six years ago, Vanstiphout believed the South African would go on to forge a meaningful rivalry with the world No 1. For whatever reason, it’s yet to happen. As recently as the Desert Classic in Dubai, Els led Woods by four shots at one stage in the last round, but came up short in the water at the last and handed victory to the American.

Whether that capitulation left another scar on Els’ psyche when it comes to gunning for Tiger in the majors remains to be seen. The South African, though, doesn’t believe the game is only played in the mind. He expects to have to putt better if he wants to get the better of Woods.

Following his return from the knee injury, Els’ career has been a series of near misses, as Jim Moriarty details in Golf World:

It is one thing to serve as the stepladder in Tiger Woods’ climb to greatness but quite another to have the echoes of Phil Mickelson’s first Masters in your ears; to lose a British Open to someone who was rolling his golf ball around Royal Troon with a club from the Home Shopping Network; to have someone named Boo chip in twice to snatch your last, best chance to win in America; to make an 8 on the last hole to throw away a tournament in your native South Africa; to dump it in the water on the 72nd hole in Dubai; and to get trounced 6 and 5 in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play only a week before. The bright light at the end of the tunnel was beginning to look like the afterlife. So maybe, just maybe, that’s what the Honda Classic really was — the beginning of the end of the Big Easy’s hardest times.

For now, Els has shown he can win again — and in the toughest conditions on a course that was one of the hardest on the PGA Tour. Of course Woods wasn’t in the field, but the victory demonstrates that Els could be a challenger at the U.S. Open. I say “could” because it has been six years since his last British Open win and a decade since his last U.S. Open. To many it would appear, even at 38, that Els’ best days are behind him.

The win at Honda did move Els up the world ranking. He’s now third in the world, behind Woods and Phil Mickelson, something Larry Bohannan in the The Desert Sun questions:

Now, with a victory in the Honda, Els has actually moved up to third in the rankings. Again, how could Els, who has struggled at times to win tournaments in the last two years be the No. 3 player in the world? The only players ahead of Els are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, two of the most consistent winners in golf.

There are two answers. One is that the world golf rankings take into consideration more than just the PGA Tour. And the world rankings just don’t put enough emphasis on actually winning tournaments.

It is hard to fathom — but let’s be frank: Els is so far from the world’s No. 1 golfer that who is third is largely irrelevant.

To my way of thinking, the Big Easy still has a lot to prove — but the real test is whether he still has something to prove to himself.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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  • Imagine if the rankings did put more analysis on winning – Tiger would be about a billion points in front of everyone else. Even now I am close to Phil (who is #2) in world ranking points than Phil is to Tiger!

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