InterviewFebruary 18, 2010

Everybody Loves Ernie

South African Ernie Els is hoping to end an eight-year winless streak in majors.

South African Ernie Els is hoping to end an eight-year winless streak in majors.

*His rhythmic swing is most famous, but I've always enjoyed the few seconds that precede it. There's just something about watching Ernie Els set up over a tee shot, those powerful legs in perfect athletic position, the twitchy bounce of his feet and shoulders just before he finally sets and goes. At 6-foot-3, Els is even bigger in person than he appears on TV. You just know that from a four-point football stance, he'd absolutely flatten you. *

Els is physically gifted. He's also financially set and a lock for the World Golf Hall of Fame. But the past few years have been unusually difficult for The Big Easy. His 7-year-old son, Ben, has autism.

Think about it. We all want the best for our children, but we'd settle for the basics, that they find their place socially in the world, that they fit in without trouble. That isn't easy for the autistic, with their rigid routines, repetitive behavior and difficulty relating to others.

But with the move from England to South Florida and its superior special-education programs, Ernie's family is on solid footing again. His game appears to be, too. At age 40, he's desperate to snap an eight-year winless streak in the majors. Will he win big again? I put the question to Paul Goydos, a wise old head. "Absolutely," says Goydos. The reason? "Talent. People overlook the obvious. The guy's got talent."

Ernie will tell you that sometimes talent is the easy part.

The Big Easy is a great nickname, but you aren't always so easy, are you? I wasn't very easygoing for a couple of years, but I'm really starting to enjoy myself again.

Do you still love golf? I do. Even more so now that my family's getting legs.

How's Ben? He's doing really well. Physically he has really grown. He's touched quite severely by autism, but with the help he's getting I believe he's going to improve.

You've been trying to raise awareness about autism. How's that coming? Liezl and I are quite involved and very focused on this Center of Excellence we're trying to build in South Florida. We're busy raising money for that. Hopefully it'll be the blueprint for other centers to come around the country and the world.

Fans forget sometimes that their heroes are human beings. How has the struggle affected your performance? It obviously works on your mind and takes you away in different directions. You always want your family to be happy and secure. In our case, we have an autistic child. But the way the media works and the way the world runs, it's more about performance. If you don't win, you're no good. There's so much more to life than golf. Family is always first.

Is that why you didn't travel to the Middle East this year? Yeah. I'd been going for 16 to 17 years, but I've promised Samantha [daughter] that I'll be at home more often.

I sense fans would love to see you return in a big way. Fans have been unbelievably supportive, not only in the U.S. but overseas. I can feel the urge from the fans. I know they want me back, and I want to be back. At least we're pulling in the right direction.

You started 2010 with a new caddie -- former NHL player Dan Quinn -- and you've been criticized for switching too much, whether it's caddies or coaches. Is that a fair criticism? I have been switching, true. But when I was in my 20s looking at older guys, they all seemed to go through it. I remember Nick Price used to swap putters. It's just the game. Maybe it's the putter first, then you change your technique, and next thing you know you're all over the place. I've been swapping and changing, and I'm trying to find a cure. That's just the game.

You aren't working with anyone on your swing right now. Why? Butch [Harmon] gave me so much to work with. He understands I just needed my own space.

It seems like you struggle from time to time with the "hang back" on full swings. Exactly. And that comes from bad setup and bad ball position. I think the hang back came from coming back a little too soon when my knee wasn't quite right. That's when those bad habits started. I get kind of lazy through the shot. When I stay athletic with good posture and get the club away in a good position, I get through it better.

Were you taken aback when Tiger said last year that you probably didn't work hard enough to rehab your knee? It was probably taken out of context and not meant the way it came out. I know how difficult it is to come back, and I might have come back a little too early. But I told doctors I'd be back by the Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa, and they said, No way! So I sort of wanted to prove it. The knee swelled, and coming back to the West Coast, where it was cool, made the knee a little uncomfortable.

So you're comfortable with the work you put in? Look, my body will never look like Tiger's. I don't look at work ethic. I do my fair share, and I'm comfortable with what I've done.

It's been eight years since you won a major. Many people wonder if you'll win another. I know they like to write me off, yeah. I've been seeing it. Thank God, I haven't gone off the map. My goal is to get back, and get back soon.

You've said all you need is to start dropping putts, and you've worked hard on that part of your game. Just trying to rock my shoulders. All the guys out here will tell you that if you don't make putts you basically lose your sense of humor.

Rate the majors in their order of importance. Well it used to be the British and U.S. Opens before I won them, followed by the Masters and the PGA. Now it's the Masters, PGA, British and U.S. Open.

Obviously because of your desire to win the career Grand Slam. How realistic is that? More so now that I'm getting my putting stroke back. If I get that putter going, I'll have a chance.

You've won three majors, but if Tiger hadn't been on the scene, how many majors do you think you'd have won so far? Maybe six or seven without Tiger. I know what level I can play to, but what he has done -- 14 majors -- is crazy.

lerner

Samantha, 10; Ben, 7; and their dogs, Zack and Milo.

Which major loss gutted you the most: 2004 at Troon when Todd Hamilton beat you in the playoff, or the Masters in '04 when Phil Mickelson birdied five of the last seven holes to trump your final-round 67? Oh, the Masters, because I've never won it, and that was as good as I could play on that final 18. To sit on the putting green and not see what was going on and hear the crowd when Phil made that putt at 18 ...that was very tough. The British Open was tough, too, but at least I had won one.

What's the best thing about the Masters? Seeing your name on the entry list. It's such a special occasion when you get the letter from the tournament committee, and then being able to play whenever you want once you have that letter.

What's your favorite shot at Augusta? The second shot into 10, down there with those unbelievable tall pines and the bunker in front. When you have an 8-iron, it's a beautiful shot. Not a 4-iron!

What's the hardest shot at Augusta? It could be one of many. Twelve isn't easy, but it's not the hardest. I think your first tee shot because of the nerve factor, getting yourself away. And your second shot into 1, when you get that breeze coming into you, that's a tough shot with a 4- or 5-iron.

You'll play in your 17th consecutive Masters this year, the longest current streak by anyone without a green jacket. How many times have you been inside the Champions Locker Room? Only once, and it was a week or so before the tournament. A member took me up there. Our locker room downstairs is maybe a bit nicer, but the one upstairs is where you want to be.

After several good years at the Masters, you've missed three cuts in a row. Any explanation? I'm to blame. Coming back after '04 I had so many things crawling around in my head. I just haven't been the same. Plus some of the holes aren't as free as they used to be -- like Nos. 11 and 15. Even No. 8, you can hardly get on. I haven't really taken a lot of game into the Masters in the past few years, and you need a little confidence there. I feel this year I'm going to do well.

How much would you wager on yourself with 10-to-1 odds at the Masters? I'd like to put 10Gs, because I'm a gambling man. I like those odds.

Anything traumatic about turning 40 last October? No, my wife gave me the best party of my life. She brought friends from South Africa, Europe and America to the Bahamas, and we had a three-day bash. And my daughter gave me the most beautiful little speech.

Tears? Yes.

I know you've met Nelson Mandela. What was that like? I've been with him quite a few times. I get chills in his presence. Every time we speak he wants to know how my family's doing. Samantha's been with me, and she doesn't yet quite understand, but I'll tell her everything he's done. He's an incredible human being. He just wants South Africa to be successful.

You have several homes in South Africa. What do you miss about your country when you're away? It's home. You can smell it in the food, the air, the land. I miss Africa. It's an amazing place.

What do you miss when you're away from America? TV, sports, the fact that everything's available -- like 24-hour drugstores.

And London? I miss London summers, but they can keep their winters. I also miss driving on the left side of the road.

What's must-see TV for you? "Family Guy." That stuff is crazy. And "60 Minutes." And I love watching baseball. If I was American-born, I'd have played that game.

What position? A pitcher. Best movie you've seen lately? "Invictus."

What about concerts? Any favorites? The Rolling Stones. Springsteen was pretty powerful in England, and then again at Madison Square Garden.

I've heard that you play "Start Me Up" by the Stones on your plane before takeoff. I do, and depending on how I finish that's how high we crank the volume. The kids like to sing it, too. It gets us in the mood.

What do you drive? In the U.S., a Cadillac Escalade. My wife just bought me a 1968 Chevy Impala convertible. It's red, with a white seat. I like to cruise around Jupiter [Fla.] in it. I also just shipped a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti to South Africa, where you can really bomb it. They know me pretty well, so I can talk myself out of a speed fine there.

What's the perfect Saturday-night dinner? In South Africa we're around the barbecue on the beach right outside our house. Same in the U.S. We like to be outside cooking, with Samantha doing her little fondue.

When you retire where will you live? I'll go back to South Africa.

  • Rich Lerner is a commentator and essayist for the Golf Channel.*