Another heartbreaking major loss for Els

Updated: July 18, 2004, 5:56 PM ET
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

TROON, Scotland -- By now, the phone number is most certainly on speed dial. Ernie Els needs to put in a call, get on the couch, and start working this out. And fast.

This is why Jos Vanstiphout has a job.

Vanstiphout is the Belgian sports psychologist, mental coach -- whatever you want to call someone who must deal with the stuff that goes on between the ears instead of inside the ropes.

Ernie Els
After another major letdown, Els might need to call for help.
If he is really as good as has been reported, then Els needs him today.

It is no stretch to say that the Big Easy could have been headed to Wisconsin next month in search of golf's holy grail, the Grand Slam, at the PGA Championship.

Instead, he has come up empty this year in the major championships, another brutal blow occurring Sunday at Royal Troon.

Hello, Jos?

Els shot a 3-under 68 during the final round of the 133rd Open Championship. Just like Saturday, he played the final six treacherous holes in 3 under. And when that wasn't enough to close out the deal, he had a four-hole playoff in which to dispatch Todd Hamilton, a player with nowhere near his credentials.

He couldn't do it. After missing an 8-foot birdie putt in regulation that would have won the claret jug, Els played the first, second, 17th and 18th holes in 1 over, while Hamilton was even par.

Major disappointment.

"I think any of them are hard," Els said. "I was in a similar position in April and I played well that time. And I felt I played well this time. But I didn't quite play good enough. I had my chances and I've got to give a lot of credit to Todd. He hung in there, he played really awesome. I just came up a little short."

And that has been the source of frustration for Els this year.

He started the final round three strokes back at the Masters, had a three-stroke lead standing on the 14th tee, played the rest of the way 1 under. . .and lost to Phil Mickelson, who birdied five of the last seven.

He started the final round two strokes back at the U.S. Open, playing in the final twosome with eventual winner Retief Goosen. An 80 did not deter Els, as he believed the course setup was more to blame for his troubles than any poor play.

He started the final round here one stroke back of Hamilton, had him in his sights all day, fell behind by two strokes with four holes to play, then had the claret jug within his grasp. And couldn't convert.

"Right now, I'm thinking about the putt on the 72nd hole," Els said of the birdie putt he missed. "That's the putt I'm going to be thinking about for awhile. I had such a good second shot, you know. And it was such a weird pin placement where if you were short of the hole, you had such a difficult putt. That putt, I'm going to think about that for awhile."

And you know it's going to keep him awake. A day earlier, Els, 34, had spoken eloquently about how much winning major championships means to a player of his caliber.

Ranked second in the world and with two U.S. Opens by age 27, he went through a major drought in the era of Tiger Woods. It was a huge breakthrough when he captured the British Open two years ago at Muirfield, where he admitted the presence of Woods had at times gotten into his head and that he had "a little man" sitting on his shoulder, whispering evil thoughts.

That victory was supposed to catapult Els to new heights, but he is still waiting for the next major, the one that will give him four.

Els had no problem bouncing back after the Masters. He went on a run of seven strong tournaments, capped by his victory at the Memorial. He put himself in contention at the U.S. Open, and tied for ninth after the final-round blowup. But he came back here and was part of the fray the entire way.

It could have been over when Els made a double bogey at the 10th hole, then hit his tee shot into a bush at the 11th. Miraculously, Els was able to advance the ball several yards from a tree limb, then knocked his approach onto the green and made the par putt.

As Els said the other day, he never gives up.

Which makes you believe he'll be there again next month at Whistling Straits.

But just in case, a certain phone call might be in order.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE