What Els Could Go Wrong?

Heartbreakingly close in the first three majors of the season, Ernie Els has one last chance to turn a disappointing year into a great one
August 15, 2004

As Ernie Els was getting closed out by Todd Hamilton at last month’s 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’s 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’s pain, Norman smiled and said, “Of course. I know it didn’t make him happy, but I’m sure he has a positive attitude. The best tonic for him would be to win this week.” ¶ Els didn’t win the International. He came in 29th with 18 points, 13 behind winner Rod Pampling. It was Els’s 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’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis.?

Aside from Els’s 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. “I would think he has to feel pretty confident these days,” says Chris DiMarco, who came in sixth at the International. “He has won three majors already. I don’t feel sorry for Ernie.”

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’t put the loss behind him. “I had a couple of chances to win [at Troon], and that’s the thing that hurts,” Els said. “I didn’t play a very good playoff. Maybe I could have made two or three birdies, but for some reason I didn’t quite trust my putting stroke and the lines that I read.”

Such lingering regret is common among players who have come close at majors. “The hardest part is not being able to go back and redo one or two shots you wish you could have over again,” 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. “Usually, losing comes down to a mental mistake that lets the other guy win.”

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’s hard to step on someone’s neck when you’re also trying to be his chum. Perhaps it’s 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. “Ernie 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,” Els’s wife, Liezl, said at Shinnecock. “He really needs to have both, or he’s not comfortable.”

Els was paired with Hamilton for the final 40 holes at Troon, but Hamilton says there wasn’t a lot of chitchat once it became clear that they were in a two-man fight for the claret jug. “We talked a little bit at first,” Hamilton says, “but toward the end our comments were more along the lines of ‘nice shot’ than ‘how are the kids?’”

The man who coaches Els on his mental approach, the ubiquitous Jos Vanstiphout, said earlier this summer that Els is “80 percent better mentally since I started working with him, but there’s 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’s really easy to lose your edge.”

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’s no coincidence that the man who won the most majors, Jack Nicklaus (18), also holds the record for the most seconds (19). Nicklaus’s take on Els is that he’ll be fine. “At Augusta this year Ernie did everything he could to win the tournament, but he simply got beat,” Nicklaus says. “The 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’s mind-set is that he knows he is good enough to win. If he keeps playing the way he’s playing, he’ll win a lot of majors.”

Els’s disappointment would be greater if he were still striving to win his first major, but having already won three--the 1994 and ’97 U.S. Opens and the 2002 British Open--and still in his prime at age 34, he’s 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. “I was playing with house money,” Hamilton says. “I 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’ve been happy finishing second. But the way Ernie has played this year, I’m sure he was down afterward.”

That’s probably why, in reflecting on Hamilton’s surprising victory, Els remembers his own breakthrough at Oakmont in 1994. “Nobody knew me,” Els says, “but 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.” Everybody knows Els now, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing--or a little of both.

Asked if he feels excitement or dread on the eve of the final major of the season, Els said, “A LITTLE BIT OF BOTH.”

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by William R. Sallaz COLOR PHOTOJOHN BIEVER MASTERLY LOSSAfter a sparkling 67 on Sunday, Els thought he had won the Masters. Then Mickelson birdied two of the last three holes to beat him by a shot. COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS OPEN WOUNDSecond after 54 holes, Els ballooned to an 80 on Sunday--and was accused of quitting by a USGA official--at treacherous Shinnecock Hills. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by William R. SallazBOB MARTIN BRITISH RESERVEEls retreated to South Africa to lick his wounds after missing a putt to clinch a win at Royal Troon, then losing a playoff to a journeyman. COLOR PHOTO PGA PLANMany top players picked practice at Whistling Straits over the International, at which Els finished 29th.

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)