Psychologist helps Ernie find the drive

Updated: February 17, 2003, 12:41 PM ET
By Jon Bramley | Reuters

When a little-known Belgian sports psychologist approached Ernie Els a couple of years ago he wasted no words flattering the big South African.

Ernie Els

"I told him I thought he was the biggest underachiever I'd ever met," Jos Vantisphout recalled recently.

Vantisphout escaped with body intact, but Els' response was equally forthright: "Who do you think you are, you little Belgian ****?"

Vantisphout's jibe had struck a chord, though. Several days later, Els, who by this time had two U.S. Open wins under his belt, approached him again and they began an association that is only now reaching full fruition.

Golf's top shrink reckoned Els had the game to worry anyone in the world -- Tiger Woods included -- but his mental approach was more that of a journeyman.

After finishing runner-up to Woods three times in majors during 2000, Els' confidence was certainly shot. Tiger just had to look him in the eye, it seemed, and Ernie would go whimpering into the long grass.

"Jos simply told him to forget about Tiger and concentrate on beating the course and realizing his own talent instead," said a seasoned tour observer.

With Vantisphout's words of encouragement and wisdom ringing in his ears, Els has done just that -- and taken the golf world by storm in the last six months. Even Woods, still the game's runaway world No. 1, can't believe his scoring.

Starting with the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, Els has won six of the eight tournaments he has entered since the end of October.

He rounded off 2002 with victory in the Sun City Challenge and Sunday's triumph in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia, was his fourth win in five starts this year.

It would have been five out of five but he squandered a one-shot lead at the last hole in the Singapore Open and ended up losing by a stroke.

But it is not just Els' success rate that has been putting the frighteners on his rivals, it's the way he's achieved it with some phenomenal scoring.

He broke a 19-year-old European tour record on Sunday in Perth with an aggregate 29-under-par total of 259, two strokes better than the previous best.

Els has been just as dominant in the tougher PGA Tour, where he won the two events there he has entered in 2003 including the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii where he beat the tour scoring record by two shots again, this time at 31 under par.

Not all, though, are giving Vantisphout all the credit for Els's astonishing run.

His wife Liezl is convinced his brave playoff victory in the 2002 British Open at Muirfield, where he survived gale-force conditions on the Saturday and a momentary loss of form down the home stretch, was the turning point.

"When he won there," she said, "all the hard work suddenly seemed worth it. He was rewarded at last."

He is also hitting the ball further than ever before thanks to a new design by Titleist, which regularly allows him to propel his drives 300 yards plus into the distance.

So what has the great Tiger Woods -- golf phenomenon and already the possessor at the age of 27 of eight major titles -- been doing while Els has lately been hogging center stage.

Not much. Well, until last week, that is.

Woods underwent knee surgery in December and waited until last week's Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif. before making his comeback.

His return did not start promisingly as he started with a routine two-under-par 70 but successive rounds of 66, 68 and 68 ensured his comeback was marked by a four-shot victory and a $810,000 payday.

Woods, then, is clearly back on his feet and back in serious business.

A rivalry to match Palmer and Nicklaus in the sixties and Nicklaus and Watson in the seventies is finally ready to take flight, chiefly because Els at last feels he has the beating of his nemesis Woods.

We have to wait just a little longer for this mouth-watering prospect, though. Woods and Els will be in competition at the World Match Play Championship at the end of this month in California but in separate halves of the draw.

They are then scheduled to play together in the Dubai Desert Classic -- if war does not break out in the meantime -- and then the Bay Hill Invitational and the Players Championship, both in Florida.

Then comes the Masters in early April at Augusta with Woods challenging for a third straight title.

Els has yet to win a green jacket but has always coveted one. It should be one mighty showdown between two, true all-time greats.