July 16, 2009

Not Done Yet

Five years after Ernie Els suffered a bitter Open loss down the road at Troon, the South African is still intent on adding to his major haul

At one-over par, Ernie Els could be in the picture this weekend at Turnberry.

At one-over par, Ernie Els could be in the picture this weekend at Turnberry.

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- When you think about it, he should have been David Duval. He should have been the guy to drop off the planet, all the way to big triple digits on the world-ranking list. He should have been the guy who threw his hands up in despair at the phenomenon that is Tiger Woods.

But Ernie Els, through it all, is not that guy. Even when, back in 2000, he lost two Opens in the space of only three weeks by 23 shots -- and was second in both -- he never stopped moving forward. Even after 2004, when he played in the last twosome on the last day of the U.S. Open and, in each of the other three majors that year, missed putts to win on the 18th green, the head never went down completely. Even after the knee injury in 2005, closely followed by the heartbreaking news that his son, Ben, suffers from autism, the big South African kept right on going.

He was the same way over the first two rounds at Turnberry. Things weren't ever going just like he would want them to go, but like every great player, he found a way. One-over par through 36 holes is a potentially winning position.

America may not want to hear this, but, through the end of 2008, Els had earned about $10 million more than his direct contemporary, Phil Mickelson. Never mind that the U.S. media blindly and typically trots out the "fact" that Lefty has won more than twice as often on a PGA Tour the foreigner Els has never played more than part-time. Look instead at the victories across the globe, almost 70 at the last count.

"His total of worldwide wins is the best gauge of Ernie's quality," insists Ken Schofield, former executive director of the European Tour. "He has carried the flag for international golf with dignity and distinction."

Another misconception is this "Big Easy" thing. That always was the biggest lie in golf. Even if he is a golfer who has always made mistakes -- he won the 2002 Open at Muirfield surviving a disastrous double bogey at the 70th hole -- a blazing fire has forever burned inside Els. Always tough on himself -- too tough say those closest to him -- the man is both a competitor and a true sportsman. Through all the pain that Tiger has inflicted upon him over the years, Els has never begrudged the game's best player one damn thing. Ernie has always been honest enough and big enough to pay tribute when it is due. To do otherwise, he clearly feels, would demean him as a man and a golfer.

It is no coincidence that it was to Els that the young, pre-pro Tiger turned for advice. Back in 1996, the pair shared a beer in the Royal Lytham clubhouse prior to the Open Championship prize giving (Els was the runner-up; Woods the leading amateur). "You're more than ready," said the ever-generous Els, displaying that rare quality in any world-class performer: an ability to cheer for someone else.

Which is not to say he is anything but a robust and hard-hearted competitor. Els is still out there giving it his all, despite what you may have heard about a supposedly waning desire, an increasingly dodgy putting stroke and all the rest of it. Take this week at Turnberry. Yes, he has slipped to 24th in the world. And yes, he has missed the cut in the Masters and the US Open this year. But this is the Open, a championship in which he has 11 times recorded top-ten finishes, seven of those in this still young century. It is a record not even you-know-who can match.

So Els is perfectly entitled to think he can win, even as he nears his 40th birthday. And he does, if actions really do speak louder than words. Last Wednesday evening, out there in the post-9 p.m. gloaming, he was still on the practice putting green with his wife, the lovely Liezl. One day later, having three-putted from no more than 20 feet on the final green for a round of 69 that could and should have been better, he stalked off to the clubhouse without a word to the waiting media. And minutes later he was back on the practice green, working on a drill.

As Els grooved his stroke, Sam Torrance emerged from the nearby BBC broadcast booth and stood a few yards behind his close friend and Wentworth neighbor. Els didn't even look up and the former Ryder Cup skipper, taking the hint, was soon on his way. Ernie was still toiling and still caring.

The second round in the rising wind and occasional showers did not go as well as it might have but added up to a still respectable 72. A fourth major title is far from impossible. His compatriot Gary Player says that to be a true superstar you must have at least six Grand Slam wins to your name. So Ernie is only halfway there. Much work remains to be done.