Can Ernie Els Get Over The Hump? Despite a stumble after a fast start, the second-best player in the world remains confident that his time has arrived

April 07, 2003

Want to climb aboard a camel? It's an offer not frequently
presented to pro golfers, if for no other reason than there
aren't many dromedaries to be found at most tour stops. But this
is Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where camels abound. So as
Ernie Els launches drive after majestic drive on the practice
range at Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa, a smile creeps across his
face. Climb aboard a camel?

"No way, man," Els tells the inquiring photographer, laughing in
protest.

"No way I'm getting up on a camel. I have to finish here, then go
for a workout, then eat." Already on this March day Els has
played in the pro-am before the Dubai Desert Classic, which is
set to begin the next morning. He squints into the low-hanging
sun at the Persian Gulf in the distance, then plops down on a
bench abutting the range. "I'm really sorry, but it's been a long
day, and I'm tired, man."

Els, 33, seems to grow wearier by the week. He has logged more
than 60,000 air miles so far in 2003, and at first the relentless
globe-trotting paid off. Els won four of his first five starts
(coming in second in his lone miss) and passed Phil Mickelson in
the World Ranking, moving to No. 2 behind Tiger Woods.

Then he hit heavy turbulence. At the Accenture Match Play in
Carlsbad, Calif., in late February--the first tournament of the
year featuring Els and Woods--Tiger put together five nearly
error-free matches to win the title, while Els lost a ragged
first-round match to Phil Tataurangi, who had gotten into the
tournament only because Nick Faldo dropped out. After being
eliminated, Els jetted to his homes in Orlando and London, then
flew on to the Middle East, where he fizzled in Dubai, losing to
an unknown, Robert-Jan Derksen of the Netherlands, on the 72nd
hole.

The real meltdown, though, came two weeks ago at the Bay Hill
Invitational. Before that tournament Els made it sound as if
there were a lot more at stake in Orlando than a garden-variety
PGA Tour title. "If I'm going to step up to Tiger's level, it has
to be now," he said. "If it doesn't happen now, it may never
happen." It did happen-for two days. A second-round 65 put Els in
the final group with Tiger on Saturday, and a huge gallery turned
out to see the highly anticipated slugfest. Instead, Els failed
to answer the bell. Trailing Woods by four shots entering the
round, Els shot a 72 to Tiger's 66 and trailed by 10 at the end
of the day. On Sunday, when Woods shot a 68 to win by 11 (despite
a debilitating case of food poisoning), Els shot a 77 to come in
38th, 19 strokes in arrears.

Although Els was injured--he later admitted that he had jammed his
right wrist while working out on a punching bag before the
tournament, an injury that caused him to withdraw from last
week's Players Championship--his failure on Saturday at Bay Hill
was shocking. "He couldn't get the ball started correctly; he
double-crossed a couple times," said Woods. "He was really
fighting [his swing]. When you double-cross any shot, it stings
your confidence."

Should Els now be lumped in with David Duval, Sergio Garcia and
Phil Mickelson on the scrap heap of failed Tiger chasers? No.
Even though he had been preparing for 18 months for the kind of
situation he faced in Orlando, Bay Hill was simply a dress
rehearsal, a good place to flub his lines.

Opening night is next week's Masters. That's when we'll see if
Els's overhaul--new equipment (Titleist), new grip (weaker) and a
sports psychologist (Jos Vanstiphout)--has had the desired effect,
or if in his rush to realize his potential and a rivalry with
Woods the Big Easy has pushed too hard.

"If I had one criticism of Ernie, it's that he has traveled too
much this year, and I've told him as much," says Nick Price,
Els's friend and mentor. "You can't look at his schedule and say
that he's rested. Ernie needs to be more focused on the majors,
as Tiger is. He should've eased up this year, taken some time off
before a final kick heading into the Masters. The only way to
improve on his career at this point is to win majors, and he
finally has the belief in himself to win lots of them."

One only needs to watch Els wince and shudder as he tells the
story of how he lost his confidence to see how difficult
regaining it was for him. In 1997 Els was a major-championship
winner and assumed that he'd be in the catbird seat for years to
come, despite Woods's record 12-stroke victory at the Masters
that April. "At that point I was still the guy to beat," says
Els, who won a second U.S. Open only months after Woods's big
win. "To be honest, I thought Tiger would come and go. I'd seen
so many like him, and I thought he'd never sustain that level."
In April '98 Els's 16th-place finish at Augusta vaulted him to
No. 1 in the World Ranking. He was on top for eight weeks. And by
the end of '99, Els adds, "everything had changed."

Woods had beaten another of his would-be challengers, Garcia, at
the 1999 PGA Championship and was about to embark on a remarkable
run. "When Tiger returned in 2000 his physique was incredible,
his swing was perfect," says Els. "He was unreal. That
stretch--four consecutive major wins--will never be matched.

"I kept thinking about how I had assumed that his bubble would
burst, and how in three months' time I'd gone from the guy on top
to a step behind." Els stares straight ahead, then snaps his
fingers. "Just like that."

That's where Vanstiphout, the chain-smoking Belgian who's never
far from Els these days, comes in. Els says the 52-year-old
Vanstiphout, a favorite among the European pros, has cured him of
Tigeritis. Vanstiphout remembers well his first conversation with
Els, in June 2001. "I told him that it was too bad that he'd
become a sloppy underachiever," he says. The 6'3" Els fought off
the urge to coldcock the 5'5" Vanstiphout and instead turned away.

Still, Els knew he couldn't go on as he had been. His 2000 season
would've been a dream year for most players--a win, five seconds
(three of them in majors) and a career-high $3.47 million in
earnings--but it hardly registered when compared with Tiger's
accomplishments. And a punchless start in '01 confirmed Els's
nagging feeling that he was slipping further behind. So a month
after their first confrontation, Els decided to listen. "Ernie
knew I was right," says Vanstiphout. "He had to learn to admit
that something was wrong. He obviously lacked a self-belief
because of that guy--I don't like to mention the name. Look, we
become the person we think we are. Ernie listened to [the media]
and believed that he was playing for second. I've instilled a
positive selfishness: a belief that the whole universe is pointed
to him."

Though Els finished 2001 without a Tour win for the first time
since '93, Vanstiphout's work had begun to take root. Els
rededicated himself to weightlifting and flexibility training and
started tweaking a game that he'd long thought to be flawless.
Most of all, Els stopped seeing Tiger as lightning striking again
and again. "More than anything, I saw the reality of Tiger," says
Els. "Everybody talks about Tiger's amazing run, that he's
lifting the bar, and they're all wrong. There is no bar for
Tiger. Everything he's done is normal for him. Look, he's the
focal point every time he plays, and he's still won eight majors,
37 tournaments. Is that a run? No.

"We've helped him out. Guys try to do too much against him. No
offense, but for a guy always in the lead, Tiger hits more bad
shots than most guys. He doesn't play perfect golf. I have the
inner strength to beat him now. My game will be enough."

Els proved as much at last year's British Open, coming back from
a double bogey at the 16th hole on Sunday to get into, and then
win, a four-man playoff. "I was asking myself, Is this the way
you want to lose another major?" Els said at the time. "Look at
some of the guys who lost the Masters or [the British Open]. Some
of them never recover. I would've been a different person if I
hadn't recovered."

Like most African and Australian touring pros, Els is a citizen
of the world. He is a South African by birth, a Londoner by
convenience, a Floridian by profession and a Bahamian by desire,
and he and his wife, Liezl, have houses in all four places. Never
being halfway around the world from somewhere he calls home makes
all the difference, he says. "It's important to have a sense of
comfort wherever I am. I'm trying to focus only on myself and my
game, only on playing my best. If I'm settled and my family can
be there with me, it's a tremendous help."

Els's transformation from carefree bachelor to devoted husband
and doting father of two is complete. He is eager to tell stories
that highlight the precociousness of three-year-old Samantha (she
adopts the accent of whatever country she's in) and the serenity
of six-month-old Ben. ("He's so easy," says Els.) Asked if family
pursuits might conflict with the monomaniacal focus needed to
contend with Woods, Els demurs. "No way," he says. "They're why I
play. Did Ben change our lives again? Yes. Did we lose even more
sleep? Yes. But I'd never want anything different. Liezl and I
used to sleep late, watch videos and have no responsibilities. My
children give me a purpose."

Els often plays his best after long breaks spent with his family.
That's why in December he prepared for this season by tending to
the barbecue at his new house overlooking Herolds Bay, near
George, South Africa, stuffing his face with chicken, fish,
meat--"anything we could kill," he says, laughing--and talking
smack with his father, Neels, and his older brother, Dirk, with
his mother, Hettie, and Liezl and the kids serving as the
audience. The weights were dutifully lifted, but golf was limited
to "social stuff with Dad and Dirk every afternoon," Els says.
Once the season started, "I'd never felt fresher. I was ready for
anything."

That showed at the Tour opener in Hawaii, the Mercedes
Championships, during which Els shattered the Tour's alltime
scoring record by going 31 under par. Almost as impressive: Els
averaged 322.3 yards a drive, more than 40 above his 2002
average.

He won the next week, too, but with Tiger still on the sidelines
with a bum knee, the victories seemed like NFL preseason games:
impressive, but signifying little. Els, aware of that, is itching
to get a shot at Woods when it counts in the standings.

"If he's to prove himself against Tiger, it'll be at the
Masters," says Price. "The course is tailored for the two of them
more than anyone else, but when a guy's tired he'll make the
mental mistakes, the bad decisions that you can't afford to make
on Sunday at Augusta. The ones Tiger never makes. Ernie knows how
precious this time is, how big this moment is."

Yes, Els certainly knows a big moment when he sees one. In Dubai,
two days after turning down that offer to climb aboard a camel,
Els lopes across the beach in front of the Jebel Ali hotel,
racing the fading light to mount Charlie, a spirited 23-year-old
beast who doesn't suffer strangers kindly. With Roberts and
Vanstiphout razzing him no end, Els straddles Charlie, who shoots
upright, croaking and bucking, the second Els has his legs in the
saddle. "Whoa!" says Els. "Settle down, camel!"

The moment duly recorded, Els dismounts and, along with his
peanut gallery, retires to his gulf-front balcony for beverages,
followed by a quiet supper of Thai food in the main building.
When he returns to his room a couple of hours later, Els makes
straight for bed. He needs sleep, man, and having bested one
beast, it is time to dream about conquering another.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGES EASY RIDER In addition to more than 60,000 air miles in 2003, Els has also logged a few feet on the back of a camel in Dubai. COLOR PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG/AP (TOP) HEAD-TO-HEAD Els says he got over a long bout of Tigeritis once he "saw the reality of Tiger" and stopped trying to do too much against him when they played. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH FAMILY MATTERS The birth of their first child, Samantha (below), in 1999 gave Ernie and Liezl a welcome new purpose in life. COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS (LEFT) [See caption above]

"No offense," says Els, "But for a guy always in the lead, TIGER
HITS MORE BAD SHOTS THAN MOST GUYS."

"To be honest, I thought Tiger would come and go," Els says. "I
THOUGHT HE'D NEVER SUSTAIN THAT LEVEL."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)