Sitting Pretty

July 12, 2005
July 12, 2005

Table of Contents
July 12, 2005

2005 British Open
Road Trip
Features/Road Trip
Features/Ernie Els
Features/Jack Niklaus
Features/First Person

Sitting Pretty

After sleepwalking through the year's first two majors, globe-trotting Ernie Els finally took a little R and R. That could make him a dangerous man at St. Andrews

IS HE REALLY RESTING? Does Ernie Els have his feet up on an ottoman at his Wentworth mansion? Is he popping figs into his mouth while he watches the BBC coverage of the Scottish Open? Is his Gulfstream G-5 gathering dust in a hangar at Heathrow? I hardly think so, but my friend Nigel faxed me a recent copy of the Sunday Mail with an alarming headline: BRAINDEAD ERNIE IS TOO EXHAUSTED FOR SCOTTISH OPEN! The thrust of the story ("bombshell news," in the writer's humble opinion) was that the globe-trotting South African came away from his four rounds in last month's U.S. Open with his trot reduced to a shuffle. "The World No. 3 feels mentally and physically drained after a punishing schedule on tour," the story explained, "and wants to regain his edge in time for the Open at St. Andrews."

This is an article from the July 12, 2005 issue

With Els incommunicado in England, I phoned his compatriot and role model, Gary Player, who, it turned out, had just stopped off to see Els on his way back to South Africa. ("We had tea," Player said.) But when I tried to coax the particulars of Els's lassitude from the 69-year-old Hall of Famer, he expressed puzzlement. "Ernie tired?" Player hooted. "I don't believe in people getting tired. When I hear TV people say that some guy has played for three weeks and is tired, I want to puke." ¶ Asking Player about travel fatigue, I realized, is like asking Tom Cruise to recommend a psychiatrist. Player has won nine major championships and 154 other tournaments while flying more than 14 million miles, including numerous 20-hour flights to and from Johannesburg. So when a schedule conflict forced Els to fly coach on a commercial flight to Dubai in March, Player couldn't resist needling the big guy. "I did that for 20 years," Player told him. "With six children!"

But wouldn't it benefit Els, I asked, to prepare for the three U.S.-based majors by flying in two or three weeks early to adjust to the time difference and get used to the different playing conditions? "I disagree with that," Player said. "If you're in a country four days before, that's plenty of time. I mean, Ernie has a G-5, he has a bed in his plane, he doesn't even have to pack his bags. It's a piece of bloody cake!"

I thanked Player and promised that I would never again show weakness by reclining my seat on an overnight flight. Nevertheless, I still had the article from Nigel in which Els confessed to fatigue and vowed to get some rest. "I badly need time off," Els said. "It might be the best preparation simply to have some easygoing practice on links courses instead." To me, that sounded like a man who needed more than four days to recharge his batteries. So I phoned another golf icon from the pointy end of Africa, Nick Price of Zimbabwe, and asked him to ratify Player's opinion that there was nothing wrong with Els that couldn't be cured by a 7,000-mile trip to Tasmania for a corporate outing.

Price declined to do so. In fact, he said his only criticism of Els, a good friend, was that the younger man failed to prepare properly for the majors. "If I were Ernie's agent," he said, "I'd make sure most of his schedule was in the U.S., and I'd see to it that he was nicely rested before the majors. Traveling upsets everything, gets you out of kilter. It takes two weeks of practicing to get that back."

Two weeks? Not four days? "No, no," Price said. "Haven't you noticed how Ernie seems to play his best golf in January, February and March? And you've often seen how he shoots high scores in the first round of majors, then bounces back with three really strong rounds? Every now and then he gets out of sync with his rhythm. That's when he struggles and gets really frustrated." Price added that he has made this argument to Els more than once but never pushed the point. "I don't want to lecture him. He's a grown man; he makes his own decisions."

Aside from convincing me that Player and Price could cohost a golf version of Crossfire, these conversations did little to settle the golf-versus-travel conundrum. Els himself is sick of the topic, pointing out that he has been traveling like an arms dealer for more than a decade, and it hasn't prevented him from winning 60 tournaments, including the 1994 and '97 U.S. Opens and the 2002 British Open. "We can sit and argue about this for hours," he told an AP writer in China this spring. But he was speaking rhetorically. His eyes roll up in their sockets when the subject is raised.

The plain truth is, Els is more concerned with his tour stats than with his travel guides. And while his overall performance remains steady to brilliant--he won three PGA Tour events in 2004 and has won 10 European tour titles in the last 28 months--Els tends to focus on the majors. Last year he finished a stroke behind Phil Mickelson at the Masters, shot a final-round 80 to tie for ninth at the U.S. Open, lost the British Open to Todd Hamilton in a four-hole playoff and bogeyed the final hole to miss a playoff at the PGA Championship.

To a striver like Els--who, contrary to his Big Easy moniker, would probably trade two years of his life for the two Grand Slam titles he has yet to win--those outcomes were debilitating. This is a man, after all, who said "it could have been career-destroying" if he hadn't prevailed in that four-man playoff at Muirfield in '02. ("It was about the survival of my inner self.") He also fights with his sports psychologist the way Ralph and Alice bickered on The Honeymooners. (Els snapped at his Belgian mind-melder, Jos Vanstiphout, at this year's Qatar Open, causing Vanstiphout to say, "Sometimes even a superstar needs a kick under his butt.")

How, then, does Els deal with this year's Masters, at which he finished 47th? What lessons does he derive from the U.S. Open, at which a second-round 76 pushed him so far out of contention that a Sunday 70 boosted him no higher than 15th? Does Els toss his clubs in the rubbish bin?

Of course not. He goes to Wimbledon with his wife, Liezl. ("I love tennis," Els explained after a day in the royal box at Centre Court, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sean Connery and Billie Jean King.) Els also found time, according to my friend Nigel, to fly to Ireland for a site visit to a course he's designing. But there was no frantic rushing around. Nothing to compare with the night in March when Els stopped in London while flying from Qatar to Florida, kissed his son, Ben, and daughter, Samantha, while they slept, and then raced back to the plane.

"I haven't really been doing much," Els reports through his website, "apart from spending time around the house at Wentworth and hitting balls at Queenwood, where the practice facilities are fantastic."

It's tempting but premature to conclude that Els has decided to listen to friends like Price, who thinks the G-5 should spend less time in the air, and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, who sees meridian lines as the golfing equivalent of Kryptonite. "It's easier now with private jets," Langer said last week in Chicago, "but you're still going from one continent to another and fighting a five- or six-hour time change. I was always prepared for the Masters, but there were many U.S. Opens and PGAs where I would be playing in Europe on a Sunday, fly over on Monday, and three days later I'm on the 1st tee. That's not really giving it 100 percent."

Or maybe Els is starting to take seriously the banter of players like Stuart Appleby, who says the entire Aussie contingent kids Els about his schedule. "We all say, 'You don't have to run around playing all these tournaments and trying to conquer the world like Dr. Evil.'"

One thing seems certain: The Ernie Els who tees it up at St. Andrews next week will be neither weary nor brain-dead. "Ernie is a very strong physical specimen," Player told me, "and his mind is equally strong. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see him win at St. Andrews." Price seemed to be reading from the same script when he said, "Ernie is as tough as can be, and I think his performance in the last two majors left him highly motivated. I wouldn't be surprised if he won at St. Andrews."

My friend Nigel, on the other hand, thinks the claret jug will go to Craig Parry "because he's a Capricorn." And Nigel usually knows his stuff.

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICHSCHOOLS OF THOUGHTSome say Els's schedule hurts him in majors; others feel it makes no difference.COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECKEYE-OPENER A front-running Els eventually won the 2002 British, but only after a four-man playoff.