Interview: Ernie Els, golfer and former Open champion
In a candid interview, the former Open champion admits he thinks belly putters should be banned and bemoans the impact of club technology on the lost arts of driving and chipping
It has always been difficult not to root for Ernie Els. That ridiculously smooth swing, that lazy rhythm, the outwardly friendly demeanour and that famous grin all combine to make the 42-year-old South African one of the coolest and most popular players of this or any other generation.
“I’m always amazed at how famous he is,” says Els’ former manager, Chubby Chandler. “He gets recognised wherever he goes. It’s unbelievable really. It doesn’t seem to matter where he is in the world – New York, Dubai, Singapore, London, Melbourne – people know and like Ernie. They are attracted to him. Which is a massive compliment to his personality.”
He’s no easy touch, though: far from it. And that nickname, “The Big Easy”, might be the most inappropriate in the history of golf – a bit like calling Colin Montgomerie “friendly and approachable” in times of stress. Els has always been one of the game’s toughest competitors and his own harshest critic when results have fallen short of his lofty expectations. Too harsh, some would say.
“Yes, he looks very laid back,” says South African pro John Bland, who has known Els since he was a teenager. “But inside he gets very angry.”
That’s certainly been the case over the past two or three years, a period when, plagued by what might politely be called “inconsistency” over putts in the 3-5ft range, the three-time major champion has struggled mightily to maintain his place among golf’s elite. He has even resorted to the so-called “belly putter”, an implement he sarcastically labels “cheating”.
“I can’t deny that the belly putter has been great for me,” says Els with a shrug. “It has been a great apparatus for me to use in my struggles. But I certainly won’t be complaining if the authorities ban it. It isn’t the way golf is supposed to be played. And if they ban it, that will be fine with me.
“What it helps me with is the path of the putterhead through and after impact. Especially under pressure – and when you get into your 40s – it gets harder to release the putter through the ball. Whether it is your hands or your mind, something says ‘nah’ and you end up steering putts more than stroking them. But the belly putter definitely helps me with that. I’m not sure it makes me a better putter, but it surely gives my stroke more of a flow on the proper path.”
Still, even with a metal shaft stuck in his navel, Els has followed some beautiful ball striking with some notable misses down the stretch. At this year’s Transitions Championship in Florida he failed to find the cup from short range on each of the last three greens and missed a play-off for the title by one shot.
“A lot of Ernie’s frustration stems from his putting,” continues Bland. “He has been trying too hard to get the ball into the hole. That’s easy to identify, but difficult to rectify. He’s like a big bear. If you poke a bear with a stick it wakes up pretty quickly. I think Ernie has felt that stick recently. But he’s ready to stop wandering around and get back into action.”
It would appear so. In the few short months since he fell out of the world’s top 50 (a state of affairs that led to him missing the Masters, a tournament where he has four times finished runner-up), Els has produced a string of solid performances, including a tie for ninth at last month’s US Open.
“I want to get back to where I feel I should be,” says Els. “It’s a crazy game, though. When you’re a kid you grow up wanting to be, say, Ernie Els. Then when you’re Ernie Els you’re trying to play like a kid.
“I just want to satisfy myself really. I don’t know if that means world No.1 or five or ten or anything. It’s not a specific thing, but I’ll know when I get there. And I’m on my way. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer, especially when I look at how I played last year.
“Even at my age, I’ve learned a lot through my struggles on the greens. But I can see where I’m headed. [Wife] Liezl has been great through all of this. She knows me better than anyone and we know where I want to be. It’s hard to define, though. Obviously another major victory would be great. Big things in the game would be great. But those only happen when you take care of the little things first. If I can do that, I’ll get there soon enough.”
So it is that, when he arrives at Royal Lytham & St Annes for what will be his third Open appearance over the Lancashire links – he was tied second in 1996 and third-equal five years later – Els is a man on the up. And with plenty of motivation at the thought of doing well in the championship he claimed a decade ago at Muirfield.
“I could have won two Opens at Lytham if things had gone a bit differently,” he confirms. “If I had finished with three pars in 1996 I would have been in a play-off with Tom Lehman. That was a bit of a blow, even if, at the age I was then, I always thought I had time to win more.
“One year earlier I had a three-shot lead in the USPGA at Riviera and didn’t win. I should have, though. Then when I didn’t win that ’96 Open, the losses started to nag at me a little. Winning the 1997 US Open calmed things down again. But if I had won the ’95 PGA and the ’96 Open I was on my way to a very different, Tiger-like career.
“The ones where you come close and don’t win, those stay with you. 2004 was easily the worst year of my golfing life. And, at the same time, it was a great year. There were a few ‘almosts’. I almost won all four majors and I was almost No.1 in the world.
“So, when it comes to the majors, I feel like I am maybe a little over par, given the level of my ability and talent. I’m hard on myself, but I feel like five or six wins would be more realistic. That would have put me in the Nick Faldo/Seve Ballesteros sort of area, which is where I feel like I belong.”
Where he belongs, of course, is back in the top ten – he is currently ranked a ridiculous 40th – but achieving that aim won’t be easy. Nothing is in golf at the top level these days. In a world where the 15 most recent major championships have been won by 15 different players – and the last 24 European Tour events have equally failed to produce a repeat winner – parity is increasingly the name of the game.
“Equipment advances have had a huge effect on the ability of anyone to separate himself from the rest,” says Els. “Everyone is custom-fitted these days. The belly putter helps people like me. The big-headed drivers mean that everyone hits it like only Greg Norman used to. You can even get clubs that will help you eliminate draws or fades. Guys are more educated about their own games. Course management is better. And so is fitness. No-one is going to big Sunday night parties any more,” he adds with a laugh.
“I’m sure the ruling bodies are looking at all those equipment issues. Driving was an art form not so long ago, but it isn’t now. Everyone has a huge metal-headed driver with a huge sweet spot, one that makes bad driving far harder to achieve. The short game was the same, but it isn’t any more. Everyone can get a club that will help him pitch and chip like only Seve could do in his heyday. I look around now and see guys winning, guys who could never have done so 20 years ago. Maybe we pros do need to have smaller drivers, less lofted wedges and a ball everyone must use.”
While Els would do well not to hold his breath on any of those badly needed changes occurring any time soon, many followers of the game are heartened by the fact that he clearly intends to hang around professional golf for a wee while yet.
“Ernie has always been someone I have looked up to,” says former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “I love watching him play. I love playing with him. He still has the swing most guys wish they had. And he is as competitive and as ‘into it’ as anyone. He just makes it look like he’s not. When you watch Ernie you always think you can go out on the range and do what he just did. Of course you can’t.”
It’s fun to try, though. Just stand there, take the club back and think: ‘Smoooooth.’
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