Sport Golf

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Els unlucky to live in the shadow of a genius

Despite some agonising near-misses, Ernie Els' tally of three Major titles hasn't done justice to the South African's natural gifts, says Peter Bills

Published 19/06/2011 | 05:00

The proposition seems bizarre, quite absurd. How could anyone suggest Ernie Els has been a failure at the very highest level of his sport?

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Yet if you adopt the maxim of the top golfers that ultimately they must be judged by their wins in the Majors, then so far at least Els has undeniably come up short.

For a player of his extraordinary talents to have won only three Majors is a startling contrast to the very highest skills he has enjoyed in his locker since his earliest days. It is 22 years since Els turned professional, 17 since he joined the PGA Tour. But given the explosive impact the big South African made so early in his Tour career -- winning the US Open in his first year on the Tour -- you have to say that what has followed has too often been a disappointment for the man dubbed 'The Big Easy'.

Indeed, Els followed up that 1994 US Open triumph by winning the trophy again just three years later, in 1997 at Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, location of this week's Open. Five years later, he won his third Major, the 2002 Open Championship.

Yet the nine-year drought that has followed in terms of Majors has surprised everyone. Els' inherent strength, albeit delivered with a swing so smooth that he could be scooping treacle from a jar, seemed to guarantee further success. It wasn't as if the physical action required to deliver the shots was tearing his body apart, as in the case of a player like the late Seve Ballesteros, who suffered years of agonising back pain for his self-punishing technique.

As others began to feel the aches and pains, Els just kept on swinging smoothly. Trouble was, he wasn't winning any more Majors.

Since that 2002 victory at Muirfield, Ernie Els has won eight titles but none of them on the biggest stage of all. You have to say, for a guy of his phenomenal talents, he has come up seriously short in that respect.

Els himself is said to have acknowledged the point in private, suggesting that he had thought himself capable of winning at least another three or four. Tiger Woods' haul of 14 Majors may be considered extraordinary -- Jack Nicklaus's 18, even more incredible.

But the South African has had the ability at least to double his tally. Yet it hasn't happened. Sure, there have been near misses aplenty, every one doubtless like a wounding arrow in his heart.

He was runner-up at the Masters in 2000 and again 2004; he tied second at the US Open in 2000, tied fifth in 2003 and was third in 2010. In the Open Championship, he tied second in both 1996 and 2000, tied third in 2001, was second in 2004, third in 2006 and tied fourth in 2007. In the USPGA Championship, he tied third in 1995, tied fifth in 2003, tied fourth in 2004, finished outright third in 2007 and tied sixth in 2009.

That shocking, depressing tally of near-misses adds up to 16. Here lie the wrecked campaigns that ought to have added to Ernie Els' career record of wins in the big events.

Maybe the drought is explained by two factors. The first is Tiger Woods, the second Els himself.

Unluckily for Ernie, his career has coincided with that of one of the greatest phenomena ever known to the game of golf. Woods has been a freak, a one-off. The way he accumulated all those Majors made him a man apart. But then, his own background, driven by a father who had experienced the worst of American racial divisions in his lifetime and, whether intentionally or not, set his son the goal of beating the privileged white golfers of America at their own game, dictated inevitable success.

But Woods hasn't just been successful, he has been remorseless. He has gone on and on; initially fighting perceived injustice but then physical pain that would have utterly distracted mere mortals, and then finally his own demons which combined to wreck his marriage. Trying to beat a man with all that going on has been too big a task for plenty of fellow competitors, not just Els.

But perhaps the South African's other bête noire has been himself. He is, perhaps, too nice a guy. Els hates the tag 'The Big Easy' because it suggests the whole thing, his entire career, has been a piece of cake made possible by his genius. It wasn't. He had to work hugely hard to get where he got to. Any sportsman or woman, whatever their game, cannot get to the top on latent ability alone. Massive amounts of sweat, dedication and commitment are required to reach the altar of their sports.

But once there, Els probably lacked the manic intensity, the never-ending internal drive, the slavish devotion to constant glories, if you like, of a ferocious competitor like Woods. One man had a lifelong mission to keep winning, to achieve; the other had the desire, but in the sense of being a more rounded, normal human being.

But in an era of the Tiger, that wasn't enough. The difference between the two men was epitomised best by a quote, allegedly given by Woods to an aide back in 2006 after he had again seen off an Ernie Els challenge.

"If I can break the big guy's heart just one more time, maybe he will go away and stay away," Woods is reported to have said. Somehow, you can never imagine a guy like Ernie Els saying such a thing about a fellow competitor.

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