DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — So, in the end, he didn’t make off with what would have been a fourth Dubai Desert Classic title. But his play over the four days—and eventual T-12 finish—showed that more than a flickering life remains in the supposedly aging Afrikaner.
Ernie Els turns 50 in October, a couple of months before he captains the International team in the Presidents Cup matches at Royal Melbourne. His current assignment there is non-playing, but if the stellar form he showed at the Emirates Club in a tournament he first won a quarter of a century ago continues, that could well change.
OK, that might be a bit of a stretch. But Els and Royal Melbourne have some history. The four-time major champion’s 12-under-par 60 in the 2004 Heineken Classic remains the lowest round ever shot over the composite course many regard as the finest in the southern hemisphere. Few understand its nuances and subtleties better than Els.
“I have a very good feel for Royal Melbourne,” he says with some justification. “I’ve won there a couple of times, so I know how to get round. I understand the strategy involved. It’s all about positioning more than power.”
The positive signs were obvious early in the week in Dubai. Halfway through Els’ opening round on Thursday, long-time caddie Rikki Roberts was purring contentedly over his man’s form. “This is the best I’ve seen Ernie swing in 10 years,” said the man who was on the bag for all four of Els’ Grand Slam victories.
Indeed, playing alongside Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal, Els was performing on a different level to his two old foes, both of whom missed the halfway cut. Relative to each other, one thing hadn’t changed though. It was almost comical to watch, a head-nodding reminder of days gone by. Off the tee, Montgomerie would routinely split the fairway, just as he has almost always done throughout his career. Els would then launch one 40 yards or so past the Scot. Again, nothing new in that. Then Olazabal, never the best with the longest club in his bag, would send one into rough left or right. It was circa-1994 all over again.
“I’m not surprised by anything Ernie has done this week,” said Montgomerie, just before his old pal’s final-round 71 began. “He’s swinging the club fantastically well. Yes, he’s suffered with the putter a bit these last few years, but he’s still incredibly good from 20 feet or so. And he’s still well long enough off the tee at 49. I would not be surprised if he wins this. There is a 65 in him. This course suits him. It’s a course made for those who can hit high draws. And that is Ernie. The 4-iron he hit to the last green on Friday evening was ‘Woods-esque’ even in Tiger’s prime. Which is the biggest compliment I can pay Ernie.”
It wasn’t to be, of course. Not the 65. Nor the win, Els finishing 10 strokes back of Bryson DeChambeau, the runaway winner. But Monty’s theme was one echoed by others, not least Els himself. As early as the end of day two, the South African giant was also talking himself up—albeit in his usual quiet and understated way. In adding a seven-under par 65 to his opening 68, the 1994, 2002 and 2005 champion made seven birdies and an eagle. His birdie-tally for the week, which would reach 19, was already 14.
“I’ve had some great times here,” he said. “I’m swinging well. My body feels well. I’m making good use of my memory bank. Playing with Colin and Jose was fun, too. We had a couple of good chats. And I found my form. You’ve got to love it.”
It didn’t last. Not quite. Not only because DeChambeau was too good (winning by seven strokes), but because Els’ sometimes fragile putting caught up with him towards the end of the final round. Short birdie putts were missed on the last two greens. Had they been holed, Els would have been one shot out of second-place. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was less than happy at the close of play.
“Overall, I’m pleased with how I played,” he said. “The weekend wasn’t that great, but I can take a lot of positives from my performance. My emotions were good. But I’d like to have finished 3-4 rather than 4-5. I just have to keep grinding.”
Going forward, Els intends to be busy. He’ll be playing all over the world during the next few months, keeping an eye on prospective members of the side he hopes will dull the memory of the humiliation that was Liberty National in 2017.
Els intends to hold as many “team meetings” as he can between now and when the team is finalized. The first of those will take place in Los Angeles next month, with another schedule for Ponte Vedra during The Players Championship. Those in attendance would be well-advised to pay attention. There remains much to learn when Ernest Theodore Els talks—and plays—golf.