Els hopes for a big '05 comeback

Updated: January 12, 2005, 7:19 PM ET
By John Hawkins | Golf World

Last year's British Open playoff featured the only type of extreme golf recognized by the R&A: a four-hole duel between low-ball grinder Todd Hamilton, a PGA Tour rookie after seven failed attempts at Q School, and Ernie Els, a three-time major champion whose immense size registers both physically and competitively.

If not polar opposites, the two men made for a striking dichotomy as they returned to Royal Troon's first tee to resolve possession of the claret jug. Hamilton had spent 11 years toiling in Japan as a means of career survival. Els rarely ventures to the Far East without the promise of a six-figure appearance fee.

Ernie Els
Els is looking for a 'three-peat' at this week's Sony Open.

True to form, Hamilton pulled out a hybrid club and slapped his tee shot down the left side, at which point Els, seemingly oblivious to the out-of-bounds stakes 25 yards off the fairway's right edge, crushed a drive that traveled close to 350 yards. The Big Easy maintained his advantage by punching a baby wedge six feet right of the pin, but as the gallery rushed to encircle the first green, the world's second-ranked player looked like a guy about to have a couple of teeth pulled.

You didn't need a translator to interpret the body language. Staring off into the twilight, Els' cheeks puffed with each laborious exhale. He missed the birdie putt badly, then lost the tournament with a bogey at the par-3 17th, a hole he had conquered under the gun an hour earlier. "I hate the way I handled the playoff," he says six months later. "I'd birdied 16 and 17 [in regulation] and thought my [approach] at 18 might go in the hole. I had a difficult putt, a little bit of a side slope, and if I'm not careful I could run it four feet by, but I know how I felt. Just hit the damn thing."

As the sun sets on the first day of the 2005 season - three days before Els' wayward drive on the 72nd hole would cost him a chance to extend the Mercedes Championships to sudden death - his recollections of Troon are as clear as the Hawaiian sky. "Then we get to the playoff and immediately, my mindset is to not lose," he says. "That's the worst mentality you could possibly have in sports. If you get beat, you take off your hat and say, 'Cheers, well played.' I wish I could play those four holes over again."

The rewind button would have come in very handy for Els in 2004. Despite three wins on the PGA Tour and five overall, despite winning $7,725,191 and finishing second on the worldwide money list - first in Europe's Order of Merit, a distant second to Vijay Singh in the U.S. - it was still an unfulfilling year. From the excruciating Masters loss to Phil Mickelson on the 72nd hole to falling one stroke short of a three-man playoff at the PGA Championship, Els walked away from each of the game's biggest titles burdened and bitter. "Ernie came as close as close gets to winning three majors in one year," says Tiger Woods, no stranger to the feat.

Els himself compares his 2004 to the season compiled in '86 by Greg Norman, who led all four majors after three rounds. Norman, however, held on to win the '86 British Open; it should also be noted that the Big Easy didn't own a share of the 54-hole lead in any of his losses. From a subjective standpoint, the similarities are obvious. Not since Norman's heyday has a high-profile player performed so well and walked away with so little.

With two U.S. Opens and a British already in his pocket, it's highly unlikely Els, 35, will ever have to deal with the ultraviolet media rays that once scorched Norman and Mickelson. The list of big ones that got away has grown longer than his triumphs - Els has six runner-ups and 17 top-five finishes in 50 major starts - but there is a lot to be said for contending time and time again. And by winning both U.S. Opens in gritty fashion before the age of 28, the Big Easy basically earned a lifetime exemption from negative scrutiny.

Thus, he remains his own harshest critic. "A lot of good things happened, and there was a lot of disappointment here and there," Els says of '04. "I'm still chasing the Grand Slam -- I would love to at least win a major this year. That sounds very cocky, but that's my mindset. The near-misses hurt, and when you get a couple in a row, it gets very frustrating, but they also get you going again."

If Els has left himself vulnerable to any second-guessing in recent years, it involves his scheduling, which is more ambitious than Singh or Woods, his two primary rivals. Last year was particularly crazy -- Els began his season in Hawaii, where he won the Sony Open, headed off to Thailand, then Australia, where he won the Heineken Classic. Els then journeyed to the Middle East for the Dubai Desert Classic and picked up the PGA Tour at the Bay Hill Invitational. For those of you keeping score, that's four continents in three months.

It only got worse. In mid-May Els played in the EDS Byron Nelson Classic then immediately departed for Europe where he played in two events. He returned to the U.S. without taking a week off and won the Memorial, then faded at Westchester and headed straight for the U.S. Open. In other words, he prepared for Shinnecock Hills by playing five consecutive weeks, a stretch that included at least two trans-Atlantic trips and two full-day corporate commitments.

"He spent something like 480 hours in the air last year," says Ricci Roberts, Els' longtime caddie. "That's 20 days in the air. Never mind all the stuff you've got to deal with on the ground. That's three weeks in the air!"

No wonder Els burned to a crisp on U.S. Open weekend. Two strokes behind fellow South African Retief Goosen entering the final round, the Big Easy allowed the USGA's mismanagement of the course to hinder his bid for a third title. He turned on his television Sunday morning, and like everybody else, saw the debacle unfolding. "We got out there, and when I walked onto the practice green, I dropped a ball from waist-high," he says. "I'm telling you, it bounced a foot off the ground."

A well-rested player might have chuckled, but Els was furious, in no shape mentally to do battle with Goosen, whose imperviousness to distractions is perhaps his strongest asset. Els would shoot 80, the highest score by anyone who finished in the top 20. "If he doesn't play Westchester, he wins the U.S. Open, if you want my opinion," Roberts says. "That Tuesday and Wednesday, he was hitting the ball as well as I've ever seen him hit it."

Having lost the year's first two majors in such unperceivable (and dramatically different) fashion, Els felt the weight of the world on his shoulders during the British Open playoff. The pressure was only magnified by the presence of Hamilton, a far less accomplished player who had matched Els punch for punch over the final 36 holes of regulation. After the loss Els didn't play for three weeks, then tuned up for the PGA at what would result in his worst finish of the year to that point - 29th at the International.

Although Whistling Straits would become Els' least memorable major performance in 2004, it was only because he played solid, steady golf. He shot eight under for the first two days, when the course played easy, and hung around near the top of a crowded leader board all weekend. When Els laced a 2-iron from 221 yards into the brutally long, par-4 15th, then made the 10-footer for birdie, Roberts had a feeling this might be the one, but a bogey on the 72nd hole dropped Els to seven under, one stroke behind playing partner Chris DiMarco.

Again, he left without a word to anyone. "The final straw," Els calls it. "I was fed up and very frustrated, like, what is going on here?" Whether Els victimized himself in 2004 with all his globetrotting is anybody's guess, but it's hard to imagine it helping his cause. Although he didn't play in more events than Singh, who competes almost exclusively in the U.S., or deal with as much peripheral commotion as Woods, who does most of his international traveling after the regular season, the issue involves timing.

"It's part of what we do and who he is," Liezl Els says. "If he could travel without a family, it would probably be a lot easier, but it also wouldn't be nearly as much fun. He gets to spend so much quality time with the kids [5-year-old Samantha and 2-year-old Ben]. We get a lot of strange things happening, like Ernie playing with his daughter at 3 a.m. because we're all jet-lagged, but he likes going to Dubai, loves going to Australia. We have so many friends down there, it's almost like going home."

Some things can't be explained, other things can. Els points out he already has eliminated one transcontinental trip from his early '05 plans - after trying to win his third straight Sony Open of Hawaii title this week, he'll play the Buick Invitational next week at Torrey Pines, catch his breath, then bounce down to Australia and Dubai in one long shot before returning to the United States. "There's no Singapore, no crazy flights on the schedule," he says. Whether that helps him become the No. 1 player in the world or win his fourth major title, only time will tell.

If there's anything Ernie Els has, it's time. "If you enjoy the places you're going to, that's half the battle," Liezl says. "If he's winning tournaments, the travel isn't an issue, but when he's not, it seems to be a problem."

Such a predicament comes with the territory when you're one of your generation's best golfers. Just don't ask on which continent that territory resides.

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