As Ernie Els was getting closed out by Todd Hamilton at last month‚Äôs British Open, Greg Norman, watching on television at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla., could relate. Like Els, Norman is one of the few people who understands what it‚Äôs like to have three near misses in a row in major championships. In 1986 Norman accomplished a Saturday Slam, leading all four majors after three rounds but winning only one, the British. In all, Norman has finished second in eight majors and been the runner-up another 31 times in regular PGA Tour events--the most seconds among active players. Asked last week at the International, in Castle Rock, Colo., if he did, indeed, feel Els‚Äôs pain, Norman smiled and said, ‚ÄúOf course. I know it didn‚Äôt make him happy, but I‚Äôm sure he has a positive attitude. The best tonic for him would be to win this week.‚Äù ¬∂ Els didn‚Äôt win the International. He came in 29th with 18 points, 13 behind winner Rod Pampling. It was Els‚Äôs worst showing since he missed the cut at Bay Hill in March. The real question is: After coming so close to winning the first three majors of the year, will Els contend in the fourth? Or will the three bitter pills he has already swallowed poison him for this week‚Äôs PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis.?
Aside from Els‚Äôs final-round 80 at the U.S. Open--he was in second after 54 holes but finished ninth--he has obviously played superbly in the first three of the 2004 Grand Slam events. He all but won the Masters with a brilliant 67 on Sunday but fell a shot short when Phil Mickelson came home in a 31 for the ages on the final nine. Before the final round at Shinnecock Hills the smart money was on Els to win, but he never seemed to recover from a double-bogey 6 on the 1st hole. And Els could have avoided a playoff with Hamilton at Royal Troon by sinking a very makeable 10-foot putt on the 72nd hole.
Els has won twice on Tour this year, in a playoff at the Sony Open last January and at the Memorial in June. He has seven top 10 finishes in 12 starts, so nobody is ready to throw him a pity party. ‚ÄúI would think he has to feel pretty confident these days,‚Äù says Chris DiMarco, who came in sixth at the International. ‚ÄúHe has won three majors already. I don‚Äôt feel sorry for Ernie.‚Äù
There are signs, though, that the close calls in the majors are getting to Els. He had planned to spend the two weeks after the British Open at his house in Wentworth, England, but reportedly was so distraught that he went instead to his seaside retreat near Capetown, South Africa, to decompress in peace. When he arrived at Castle Pines for the International, his first tournament since the British, it was apparent that he hadn‚Äôt put the loss behind him. ‚ÄúI had a couple of chances to win [at Troon], and that‚Äôs the thing that hurts,‚Äù Els said. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt play a very good playoff. Maybe I could have made two or three birdies, but for some reason I didn‚Äôt quite trust my putting stroke and the lines that I read.‚Äù
Such lingering regret is common among players who have come close at majors. ‚ÄúThe hardest part is not being able to go back and redo one or two shots you wish you could have over again,‚Äù says Stewart Cink, who missed a one-foot putt on the final hole to lose a spot in the playoff that decided the 2001 U.S. Open. ‚ÄúUsually, losing comes down to a mental mistake that lets the other guy win.‚Äù
Unlike highly ranked players such as Tiger Woods (1st), Vijay Singh (3rd), Mickelson (4th) and Sergio García (10th), Els (2nd) decided to prepare for the PGA by playing in the International. (Els did say he planned to get in three practice rounds at Whistling Straits.) Does he feel excitement or dread on the eve of the final major? ‚ÄúA little bit of both,‚Äù Els says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve had quite a few chances, but there‚Äôs good and bad in it. It‚Äôs good in that your game is good, but the end product is not quite there. There‚Äôs still something missing.‚Äù
Some say that Els has always lacked a killer instinct. He prides himself on being one of the most congenial players in the game, and it‚Äôs hard to step on someone‚Äôs neck when you‚Äôre also trying to be his chum. Perhaps it‚Äôs no coincidence that his final-round collapse at the U.S. Open came while he was paired with countryman Retief Goosen, a friend since they were teenagers. ‚ÄúErnie wants to go to the 1st tee believing he is the best player in the group, but he also wants to know that he can joke around and be social with his partners,‚Äù Els‚Äôs wife, Liezl, said at Shinnecock. ‚ÄúHe really needs to have both, or he‚Äôs not comfortable.‚Äù
Els was paired with Hamilton for the final 40 holes at Troon, but Hamilton says there wasn‚Äôt a lot of chitchat once it became clear that they were in a two-man fight for the claret jug. ‚ÄúWe talked a little bit at first,‚Äù Hamilton says, ‚Äúbut toward the end our comments were more along the lines of ‚Äònice shot‚Äô than ‚Äòhow are the kids?‚Äô‚Äù
The man who coaches Els on his mental approach, the ubiquitous Jos Vanstiphout, said earlier this summer that Els is ‚Äú80 percent better mentally since I started working with him, but there‚Äôs still 20 percent to go. The difference between being a good player and a great player is so small and so big at the same time. Everybody is so good out here that it‚Äôs really easy to lose your edge.‚Äù
The flip side is that with 48 wins worldwide and more than $22 million in career earnings, Els is, by any standard, a great player. That puts him in the tiny group of elite golfers for whom close calls in majors are simply a part of doing business. It‚Äôs no coincidence that the man who won the most majors, Jack Nicklaus (18), also holds the record for the most seconds (19). Nicklaus‚Äôs take on Els is that he‚Äôll be fine. ‚ÄúAt Augusta this year Ernie did everything he could to win the tournament, but he simply got beat,‚Äù Nicklaus says. ‚ÄúThe same thing happened to me at Turnberry [at the 1977 British Open]. I did everything I could do to win the tournament, but Tom Watson played better. I would think Ernie‚Äôs mind-set is that he knows he is good enough to win. If he keeps playing the way he‚Äôs playing, he‚Äôll win a lot of majors.‚Äù
Els‚Äôs disappointment would be greater if he were still striving to win his first major, but having already won three--the 1994 and ‚Äô97 U.S. Opens and the 2002 British Open--and still in his prime at age 34, he‚Äôs better able to handle setbacks.
Then again, past success can sometimes be a liability. That certainly was the case at Royal Troon, where Els, playing for history, seemed afraid to lose while Hamilton, a journeyman pro, had nothing to lose. ‚ÄúI was playing with house money,‚Äù Hamilton says. ‚ÄúI could freewheel it, but Ernie was supposed to beat me. As badly as I had played in the two or three months coming in, I would‚Äôve been happy finishing second. But the way Ernie has played this year, I‚Äôm sure he was down afterward.‚Äù
That‚Äôs probably why, in reflecting on Hamilton‚Äôs surprising victory, Els remembers his own breakthrough at Oakmont in 1994. ‚ÄúNobody knew me,‚Äù Els says, ‚Äúbut I felt I was playing well that week and stuck to my guns. I got a couple of good drops here and there, and I won the tournament.‚Äù Everybody knows Els now, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing--or a little of both.