ATLANTA -- He is still the same broad-shouldered colossus, his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame eliciting the prettiest golf swing you'll ever see. Still owns the same humble, serene demeanor that has earned him a reputation as a favorite among both fans and his fellow golfers.
Ernie Els quite literally has made a name for himself by assuming such an effortless nature; it's why no nickname in sports is more apropos than his pseudonym, the Big Easy.
But golf hasn't come so easy for Els this season. He's admitted that last summer's knee surgery hampered his swing at times, and his results have reinforced that claim. At 30th on the money list entering last week's Chrysler Championship, Els almost didn't make it to East Lake for the first time he's played a full season since joining the PGA Tour in 1994. A 15-time champion and three-time major winner, he snuck into the Tour Championship by finishing in a share of sixth place.
It was his 17th made cut in 17 starts, his seventh top-10 result. He's finished inside the top 30 at all four majors, including a third place at the British Open. He was T-7 at Doral, T-8 at the Players, fifth at the AmEx. And yet, he never contended seriously for a title this season until the final week of October.
Yep, this has been one long, strange trip for Theodore Ernest Els.
"Everybody has a year like that," Els said. "You're never really on top the whole time, but you know, obviously starting with an injury and trying to get over that, I've had a lot of up and down tournaments."
Thursday's opening round at this year-end event was a microcosm of Els' season to date. Nothing spectacular, but plenty of bright spots. Nothing atrocious, but plenty of unfavorable results. There were the putts on holes 8 and 13, an 8-footer and a 5-footer, respectively, that each missed the hole. There was the greenside bunker shot on 14 that remained in the hazard. Then again, there was the lengthy birdie bomb on 12 that dropped straight into the cup. And the ensuing bunker shot on 14, which hit the pin and stopped inches from the hole.
Even Els recognized the round for its inconsistencies. "I missed quite a few fairways, but I wasn't crazy wild off the tees," he said. "I missed a couple of greens in there today, missed a couple of putts in there. It was kind of a bit of an up and down round."
Perhaps no account better explains Els' recent form than the fact that he was pleased with a "+" in front of his number after the round.
"I've got to be happy with my score," said Els, who recorded three birdies and four bogeys on a cool, blustery, perfectly autumnal afternoon. "I would have loved to have got it to even-par, but 1-over, I'm not out of the tournament."
There was, perhaps, a time when "not out of the tournament" was hardly an acceptable riposte for a man who has flirted with the title of World's Best Golfer throughout his career. In fact, he held that honor, according to the World Ranking, for one week in 1997 and eight more in '98, and has slipped to a respectable seventh despite missing the final four months of last season and first six weeks of this one due to the aforementioned knee injury.
When asked if he's now 100 percent, Els relays his easy smile and says, "Yeah, I'd say close."
Even so, one has to wonder whether Els' gradual decline has been about more than his health. Remember, this is a player who hasn't won on U.S. soil since June, 2004 -- the same season he contended at all four major championships, only to come away empty-handed. His genteel nature doesn't allow for many exterior emotions, but certainly such facts must be racing through his mind anytime he gets close these days.
The next time he contends could be this weekend. Els has never won the Tour Championship, but like so many other events, he's come close on numerous occasions, so he knows what it takes to stick around till the end.
"It's one of those events you're never really out of," Els said after the first day. "If you have a bit of a mediocre round like I've had today, it's important not to lose it and keep fighting."
Interesting choice of words. "Keep fighting." That could be Ernie Els' battle cry this season.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com