Good ol' Ernie Els. With his moon face and wide, crooked grin,
the rangy 26-year-old from South Africa looks as edgy as a teddy
bear, especially when he is having a beer or three with his
mates. It's a temperament that has been considered an asset for
someone with his special talent.
"Ernie's so easygoing," says Greg Norman. "Which is exactly why
I think he will just keep on winning."
But lately there have been doubts about that. The moment he won
the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, Els graduated
from wunderkind on a free pass to heir apparent under a
microscope. Recently it seemed that easygoing Ernie had become
as angst-ridden as another moon face with a crooked grin, good
ol' Charlie Brown.
Last year Els kept the doubters at bay by following his stellar
1994 season, in which he won five significant tournaments
worldwide, with a victory at the GTE Byron Nelson that included
a 61. But by last week's Buick Classic at the Westchester
Country Club in Rye, N.Y., 13 months had passed since Els had
won in the U.S. That was more than enough time for a whispering
campaign to create an unflattering characterization: Els is a
softy with no stomach for the demands of greatness, and he would
rather lounge around his beach house in South Africa than match
wills with the world's best players. It was wondered aloud
whether other gifted twentysomethings, players such as Phil
Mickelson, David Duval and Justin Leonard, were better built for
the long haul.
June 16, 1996
Worse, critics cited growing evidence that Els had devolved into
a poor closer. Exhibit A came in last year's British Open at St.
Andrews, where he was tied with eventual winner John Daly after
three rounds only to shoot a closing 75 to finish 11th. Three
weeks later at the PGA Championship at Riviera in Los Angeles,
Els was seemingly in top form, holding a three-stroke lead going
into the final round. But he floundered to a mistake-filled 72
that left him eating the dust of Steve Elkington and Colin
Montgomerie. Then at the Memorial the week before Westchester,
Els was tied for the lead with Tom Watson with 17 holes to go,
only to embark on a stretch of sloppy play that led to a 75 and
a tie for sixth.
Clearly Els was feeling the heat. "I was starting to worry that
I couldn't finish tournaments," he said. A fourth-round scoring
average of 73.11, 147th on the PGA Tour, confirmed his fears.
Wouldn't you know it, Els had to come within 30 miles of that
vortex of anxiety, Manhattan, to put himself at ease. After four
days of aggressive, often overpowering and always cool golf on a
cranky 74-year-old course specifically set up as preparation for
the U.S. Open, Els's 13-under-par 271 was eight strokes clear of
runners-up Elkington, Tom Lehman, Jeff Maggert and Craig Parry.
Els won in the way that had raised all the expectations about
him in the first place. His 6'3", 210-pound body produced
seemingly effortless power. Bending his tee shots both left and
right, Els routinely cut doglegs, and when he missed a fairway,
he was strong enough to neutralize the major-championship-length
rough. On the greens, bolstered by a new putter he had picked up
after his Sunday debacle at the Memorial, Els's stroke was
Most important, though, was a sense of confidence that allowed
him to play with unusual boldness on a course designed to punish
the errant shot. He used his driver on Westchester's two short
par-4s, the 333-yard 7th and the 314-yard 10th, twice reaching
the green, and he dominated the course's three par-5s. He played
those five holes in a combined nine under par. On Westchester's
toughest par-4s--the 8th, the 11th, the 12th and the 15th
average 463 yards in length--Els was even par, nearly two
strokes better than the field. Speaking for the foursome of
runners-up, Parry said, "He made us all look like fools, really."
"It was gutsy golf," said Norman, who played with Els in the
first two rounds when the latter shot 65-66 to open up a
five-stroke lead. "Ernie used his driver everywhere without
really worrying about where he hit it, because he was in a zone
with his short game. He had his swing under control, great touch
and a clear mind." Certainly clearer than Norman's after
Sunday's round, during which the Shark was heckled by a fan who
was removed from the course.
As easy as it looked, Els's third official victory in the U.S.
and 17th worldwide was probably his most nerve-racking. Els
admitted that he had a long, worrisome night after a third-round
69 gave him a six-shot lead over Tim Herron. It didn't help that
his lead and his score (13 under) were the same as Norman's
going into the final round of April's Masters.
"I thought about it quite a bit last night," Els said on Sunday.
"I know what can happen in this game. I knew the challenge was
going to be mental."
With a lot to lose, Els instead emphatically ended the whisper
campaign. He birdied two of the first three holes, rebounded
from a pair of three-putts with birdies at 9, 11 and 13, and
stepped to the 15th tee with a massive 10-stroke lead. The win
lifted a weight from his broad shoulders. "It's nice to know
that if you buckle down, you can still do big things," he said.
"This has got me going. I'm really looking forward to the majors."
In a sense Westchester was like a major, from its classic
Northeast country club setting, to the four-inch rough and hard
greens, to the stifling heat, to its date a week before the real
thing. In only a few years Westchester has gone from being a
run-of-the-mill Tour event in the hassle capital of the
continent to an elite tournament proud of its stature as U.S.
"I can't think of any regular Tour event that is set up this
hard," said Corey Pavin, who finished tied for ninth in his
final preparation for his defense at Oakland Hills. "It's a
great test for your overall game. Placement of the ball is key,
and par is a good score. The more we play in these conditions,
the better players we'll be."
By winning at Westchester, Els is back in the spotlight, a
problematic position for someone who sounds profoundly
ambivalent about fame. For example last week he expressed
sympathy for U.S. Amateur and NCAA champ Tiger Woods, saying,
"When he turns pro, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes." He
referred to the increased attention he received after winning at
Oakmont as "the pain barrier." At the same time he seems
resolved to not let such annoyances compromise his gift. "I'm
not really for being a celebrity, but I think I can find a way
to get through it," he says. "I'd like to know that I gave it my
His girlfriend of 3 1/2 years, Leizl Wehmeyer, doesn't think the
demands of winning will sidetrack Els. "The attention might make
him feel uncomfortable at the time, but once it's not there, he
wants it again," she said during a lull in Els's victory
celebration on the veranda at Westchester. "He's not quick to
admit it, but it's like something that he lives on. He'll never
let up because of pressure. He wants it too badly. He has never
said to me, after a victory, 'That was enough.' He's always
said, 'I have a lot more to go for.' This is his dream. He knows
what goes along with it. He knows."
Maybe, after all, good ol' Ernie knows where he's headed better
than anyone else.