Big Easy emerges from hard place
Like Adam Scott, Ernie Els has had his difficulties in sealing the deal at the Majors, says Dermot Gilleece
As Adam Scott embarks on the painful road to competitive recovery, he could do worse than consider serious stumbles by his conquerer of last Sunday.
Ernie Els twice looked like blowing his chance of the US Open at Oakmont in 1994 and then, as the reigning champion once more, he was to be scarred for years by events early in 1998.
The 32-year-old Australian might find comfort in the fact that Els would probably not have made the breakthrough at Oakmont but for his two main rivals, Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, being even more fragile than he was coming down the stretch. Indeed, given a similar situation at Royal Lytham, Scott might very well have survived.
Ricci Roberts was on the bag back then, just as he has been for all the South African's four Major triumphs. And when Els was asked if he recalled any conversation between the two of them over the last three holes of regulation play in 1994, he replied with admirable candour: "We were shitting ourselves."
He went on: "I remember three-putting on 16 (for bogey). Then, after making par on 17, I had a hook into trees on 18."
Wrongly believing that he needed a birdie on the 452-yard 18th to win, Els took out the big stick and hooked a drive so badly that he could do no better than scramble his second onto the fairway where it landed in a sand-filled divot. From there, his third ended 45 feet from the hole and, faced with a very similar five-footer to the one Roberts had missed 15 minutes earlier, he holed it for a bogey to get into a play-off.
In the three-way play-off over 18 holes the following day, Els appeared doomed when starting bogey, triple-bogey. But his rivals also suffered. Eventually, he had to sink another five-footer to get into a sudden-death play-off with Roberts, and went on to secure the title with a par at the second tie-hole.
Three years on, a young man named Tiger Woods electrified the golfing world by capturing the US Masters by eight strokes, and in a gesture to his mother's homeland in January 1998, he competed in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Phuket, Thailand. There, Els dominated from the start and entered the final round a stroke ahead of Nick Faldo and no fewer than eight clear of Woods. When asked if he could possibly catch the leader, the 22-year-old replied: "I can". To which Els commented sardonically: "What's he on?"
Carding a closing 65 to the South African's 73, Woods did in fact catch him. And through a winning, 15-foot birdie putt on the second tie-hole, the damage he inflicted on Els was to last several years. Indeed when asked a decade later what impact the Woods era had had on his career, Els had the honesty to reply: "If Tiger was not around, I think I would have five or six Majors by now."
In the event, the Woods slipstream became a painfully familiar location for Els in Major championships, notably when tied second in both the US Open and Open Championships in 2000, and third behind him in the 2006 Open. And there was the further disappointment of losing the 2004 Masters to Phil Mickelson and a play-off to Todd Hamilton for the Open at Royal Troon later that year.
Still, he paid his dues in such a dignified manner as to actually enhance his status as a perennial favourite with the galleries. Of course, there was also success along the way, like the 2002 Open at Muirfield.
While Scott's slide last Sunday continued with a bogey on the 17th, Els was on the putting green to the front of the clubhouse, eating a sandwich. It reminded me of his one-time mind coach Jos Vanstiphout, who unfortunately happens to be seriously ill right now, having fallen off a balcony last Christmas.
So angry was Els at how he had played the finishing holes in 2002 that he was in no condition, competitively, to face a play-off against Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby. That was when Jos came upon him. "What the f**k do you want?" he snapped at the little Belgian. Vanstiphout said nothing. He simply went off and got Els a sandwich. And the process of munching it was sufficient to transform the mood into that of a prospective champion.
As a prolific winner worldwide, he has done much to promote the image of the new South Africa. Indeed in the wake of his triumph last Sunday, he spoke affectionately about Nelson Mandela and how, as South African president, he had phoned his congratulations to Els in Pittsburgh after the 1994 US Open win.
I happened to be at Erinvale, near Cape Town in 1996, when the World Cup of Golf was staged on African soil for the first time. Appropriately, it was Els who had spearheaded their return to the tournament in Spain in 1992 after a ban dating back to 1980 because of apartheid. And I remember his pride at representing his country in front of excited crowds.
"The Boks won the Rugby World Cup and Bafana Bafana the African Nations Cup," declared Els on the eve of battle. "Now it's our turn to produce the goods." Which of course he and Wayne Westner did in some style, capturing the title by 18 strokes, with a record aggregate of 29-under par.
Meanwhile, he has made no attempt to dodge the controversy of the belly-putter which he used so effectively in the climactic moments last Sunday. "I can't deny the belly-putter has been great for me, but I certainly won't be complaining if the authorities ban it," he said. "It isn't the way golf is supposed to be played and if they ban it, that will be fine with me."
Within the next few months, in fact, the R and A and the USGA are expected to take the first steps in banning both it and the broomhandle, probably from the start of 2016. But traditionalists would love to know why it has taken them so long.
The broomhandle was first used by Orville Moody in 1984 on the US Senior Tour, and it is 12 years since Vijay Singh became the most prominent convert to the belly-putter, ironically a few months after he had won the 2000 US Masters putting conventionally. It is only a veritable epidemic of belly-putter devotees, including recent Major champions Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, which has stirred them into action.
Finally, leading agronomist Declan Branigan has some typically pithy views on the course set-up at Lytham, describing the bunkers as "incredibly penal". "Ben Hogan claimed that bunkers were to water hazards what car crashes were to plane crashes," he said. "But here, the reverse was the case. At least you can escape from a water hazard with one penalty stroke."
He went on: "Who would dream of a deep, heavy bunkering programme on terrain with a high water table? Some bunkers remained partially flooded right to the very end. Why excavate below the water table? It's a bit like building houses on a flood plain and being surprised at the consequence.
"As for bunker difficulty: excessively punishing designs lead simply to golfers reverting to a default setting, where the driver doesn't figure and entertainment goes out the window. And we should be aiming at slower green speeds on links courses. Apart from seeing more fescue, they would deliver a sterner test, given that the firmer you have to hit a putt, the more the nerves are tested."
Mind you, Lytham exposed enough frayed nerves to last several seasons.
Sunday Indo Sport