Sport Golf

Saturday 20 January 2018

What Irish stars can learn from Els triumph

Written off as gremlins of self-doubt pursued him, Big Easy is a shining example of how top stars can overcome their problems

Karl MacGinty

ERNIE ELS is walking, talking proof that class truly is permanent.

Sure, Adam Scott chucked away the Claret Jug with his shocking four-bogey finish at Lytham, but Els still won the British Open in style.

This astonishing victory brought to an end two years of torment for the South African.

Els may be known universally as 'The Big Easy' but even his shoulders weren't broad enough to handle the mockery and belittlement he endured in recent times.

Even as he basked in the glory of his fourth and greatest Major success, Els recalled some especially dark days this spring when "people were laughing at me, making jokes about me and really hitting me low, saying I'm done and really should hang it up."

For more than two years, Els seemed to be caught in a dismal vortex. Time after time he'd play his way to the cusp of victory and then seize solid, usually on or close to the final green.

Even after swallowing his pride last summer and adopting the reviled belly putter, Els still was pursued by demons of self-doubt.

Over a number of years, those gremlins nibbled away at his self-confidence and all golf wondered if, at age 42, he might ever be fully restored.

There was despair in the angry words Els aimed at David Feherty after the sharp-witted Ulsterman, in his role as first tee announcer at the Tavistock Cup, threw a few abrasive but uproarious barbs at the South African suggesting he'd be "putting with a live rattlesnake."

Every tour player at this annual bunfight in Lake Nona takes a tongue-lashing from Feherty and, at the time, Els pretended to laugh along with the banter. Yet he'd later call America's most popular golf pundit "a shock jock" in the July issue of 'Golf Magazine', adding that Feherty's jokes about his putting stroke were "a bit low". Clearly, Ernie's sense of humour had vanished.

Cut to last Sunday at Lytham, when, after three days of almost meaningless skirmishing on a rain-doused and relatively vulnerable links, a wicked wind whistled in from the west to herald the real beginning of the 2012 Open Championship.

As Els went through the turn in two-over following his second bogey of the day at nine, leaving him six behind leader Scott, it looked as if his 10-year wait for a second Claret Jug would stretch on.

Yet this time, instead of seizing up, Els seized the day ... he got angry and, playing with the ferocity of a wounded lion on the back nine, picked up four birdies, in the process stoking vast Open galleries into ecstasy.

After confidently tucking away the 15-foot putt at 18 for a stunning 68 which turned up the heat on Scott, victory still took Els by surprise.

"I haven't been in this position for 10 years," he said afterwards. "So it's just crazy, crazy, crazy getting here.

"I really feel for my buddy Scottie. I've been there before. I've blown Majors and other golf tournaments and just hope he doesn't take it as hard as I did."

His smile was back. Yet this win also is great for golf.

Els showed precisely why the list of Open champions crowned at Lytham includes so many legends, including Bobby Jones and Seve Ballesteros, not forgetting his fellow South Africans Gary Player and Bobby Locke.

There are several powerful messages to be taken from the 2012 Open, especially for Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

Veterans can conquer their putting demons

The sight of one 42-year-old, Els, succeeding another, Darren Clarke, as Open champion should prove inspiring to Harrington, and not because his 40th birthday is looming next month.

Instead, the Dubliner cannot fail to be impressed by the South African's success in his long and sometimes despairing battle to restore his faith on the greens, a problem that has dogged Harrington for the past 12 months and more.

Ireland's three-time Major champion will never wield a belly putter in anger but even if he's happy with his stroke, Harrington loses faith in his ability to read greens.

This problem afflicted Els until he sought help from specialist Dr Sherylle Calder, who helped England (2003) and South Africa (2007) win rugby's World Cup.

Harrington already has several medical professionals on his back-up team and whether or not he consults Dr Calder is his business. Yet by winning last Sunday, Els has helped knock a hole in conventional wisdom that even great putters inevitably fall prey to debilitating and incurable self-doubt in their 40s.

This should serve as subtle encouragement to Harrington, 39th at Lytham, who continues his bid for a first Major title in four years and a place at September's Ryder Cup in next month's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

The power of positive thinking -- don't get down on yourself

Els has been known as 'The Big Easy' for decades because of his languid swing.

However, he's not altogether comfortable with his nickname, as it may convey the erroneous impression that he didn't have to work hard for his success.

McIlroy is another player blessed with immense natural talent, who can make golf look outrageously easy. The 23-year-old shares another trait with Els and fellow perfectionists -- a tendency to get down on themselves and become frustrated a tad too easily.

It must be unsettling for McIlroy, such an instinctive player, to have to grapple with swing faults which have led to his recent form slump -- including a share of 60th place at Lytham, a 'soft' course which over the first 54 holes should have been ripe for the picking for a player who won the US Open so impressively last summer.

Some in the past suspected Els to be 'soft' and not as 'hungry' as fearsome golfing predators like 'The Hawk' Hogan, 'The Bear' Nicklaus, 'Tex-Mex' Trevino, the 'Black Knight' Player or Tiger.

Yet as McIlroy and his coach Michael Bannon go digging in the dirt for his golf game, McIlroy should mark the words of Els when he said: "It's an amazing game, golf. You give yourself positive vibes, you have a positive feel and sometimes positive things happen.

"I think I've been in such a negative mode for a while and now I'm starting to feel more positive. So things happen, like on that back nine on Sunday."

It's all in McIlroy's own hands.

Reacting to adversity makes all the difference on Major Sunday

Sunday afternoon at Royal Lytham was frustrating for established Major winners like Tiger Woods and McDowell.

The Portrush man was particularly annoyed with the tee shot which flew over the back of the green at nine and led to a bogey moments after he'd got within three of his playing companion Scott with a great, morale-boosting birdie at eight.

Though he admitted losing his second shot in bushes left of 11 made him think "there goes my Open", McDowell said: "Bogeying nine and 10 pretty much was the key.

"I'd made a great birdie on eight and stormed to that tee, then executed the wrong golf shot."

Whereas an angry Els surged into top gear and after his setback on nine and made light of difficult conditions, McDowell and Woods misfired when they tried to press the accelerator on the back nine on Sunday.

Yet as Els was crowned the 16th successive different champion at the Majors, 2010 US Open winner McDowell's appreciation of the South African's mastery was clear.

"It's the return of one of golf's great champions," said the Ulsterman, plainly taking pleasure in seeing the bar being set so high.

"Ernie's a classy, classy golfer. It's great to see guys like that at the top of world golf.

"He's a good role model for young kids and all golfers."

Irish Independent

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