Interview: Ernie Els, golfer
IT’S MID-March and here we are on the closing stretch of the Transitions championship at Palm Harbour, Florida, where Ernie Els is closing in on victory. Yes, indeed. The Big Easy is back. He’s strolling around the 16th green on Sunday as leader.
He’s looking at a four-footer for birdie, the months and months of mediocrity and missed cuts just memories now. Here he goes. Tap. Oooooh. He misses. Thus began the meltdown.
On 17 he hoiks his approach and makes bogey. On 18 he needs to make par from four feet and pulls the head off his putt and misses the play-off by a shot. Luke Donald, his playing partner in today’s opening round of the Scottish Open, takes the title but everybody is talking about Ernie. He’s interviewed directly after. He looks stunned and upset. At times, he looks close to tears. What happened out there, Ernie? Rarely have we seen him so lost.
Next day, he’s the butt of jokes. David Feherty is introducing him on the first tee at the Tavistock Cup and wiseguy that he is, the Irishman can’t resist a gag. He references Els’s jumpiness on the greens the evening before. “Today Ernie will be putting with a live rattlesnake,” says Feherty. Everybody laughs, except Ernie. They’ve sorted it out now but it hurt at the time. Having somebody taking the piss out of his putting wasn’t pleasant. “A low blow,” he said. “Totally shocking.” “Not a gentlemanly thing to do.”
That was Ernie then. This is Ernie now. The Big Easy once more. Or the Big Easyjet. He’s talking about his journey to Scotland, not on his private plane, which is back in America, but on board the budget airline; Luton to Inverness, £150 including golf clubs. Fantastic! “I’ve gone back to my roots,” he says. “I loved it. People were looking at me, especially the players and they gave me a lot of stick. I won’t say what they said to me but they had a lot of fun at my expense. Everybody was so surprised to see me but that’s where we all started and some nice stories were told again about the old days when I played the European Tour full-time. We used to fly out from Heathrow on Tuesday mornings as a group and return on Sunday evenings with the caddies. There was a smoking session at the back of the plane in those days and some of the players would be there. The next day we would wake up with hangovers.”
Things are changing for Els. Following a horrendous run in the majors he refound his competitive steak at the US Open and wasn’t far off winning the thing. He feels disappointment about not winning, but satisfaction that he put himself in contention. “I felt a lot of good vibes playing under pressure again. I felt quite comfortable, so quite a lot of positives. I was really calm. I really felt like my old self. I had Ricci (Roberts) on the bag, which was great, so it felt like old times almost. I felt mentally and physically very at ease for once, which I haven’t felt like in months.”
Good old Ricci, carrying the bag again. What a double act they are. Els jokes that he’s fired Roberts three or four times over the years, Roberts responds by saying that the next time there’s firing to be done then he’s going to be the one doing it. They reunited in the spring but it would have been earlier than that if it wasn’t for a little accident. They were on stage at a charity night. Roberts exited stage left, but the stairs were on the right. Down he crashed and did his ankle, but there he was on Tuesday night, waiting at Inverness airport with a trolley and taking Els’s picture when he came off the plane to hoots of laughter.
Els hasn’t played since the US Open. He’s come here to “get some rust off the game,” he says. One eye on Castle Stuart, the other on Lytham. It’s a place he has good memories of. Distant, but encouraging. The last time the Open was there was 2001 and he finished in a tie for third, four shots behind David Duval. The time before, 1996, he finished in a share for second, two behind Tom Lehman. Given the injuries he’s had, given his slump in form over recent years, there would scarcely be a more exhilarating sight than Els entering the final stretch at Lytham with a chance of winning a second Claret Jug after going so close so many times since the glory of 2002. A key part of his story, of course, is his young son, Ben, who suffers from autism. There’s no doubt that Els lost his golfing edge when Ben was diagnosed. How could he not? There was so much confusion in his family life? So much uncertainty, so much research that had to be done to find out how best to care for the boy and so much money to be raised to build the centre he wants to build in Florida, a place that can advance the understanding of the nature of autism. “We’re almost there,” he says. “We’re just getting land now and we’ll probably start next year, so all of that stuff is quite nice and it’s exciting. The hard part is almost over now. We’ve gone past (raising) nine million, so we’re almost there.”
Lytham, then. He talks about possible contenders, which is just about everybody in this era where somebody like Webb Simpson can come from beyond left field to win a major. “Rickie Fowler showed last year that he can play in tough conditions and he has the mental ability to adapt. And he’s got a great ball flight. It’s a very, very open ball-game now, unlike nine or ten years ago where it was kind of more the regulars. A dark horse? Darren Clarke. I mean, that’s one place he’s comfortable. I know he’s struggling with his game but he’s not that far off. He’s got that great ball flight and if he gets the same talk he had last year from Bob Rotella, who knows?”
Els was a relatively young man when he won his majors so he cannot know what it must be like to be Lee Westwood or Luke Donald right now, can’t understand what angst they must feel deep down even if they are never likely to talk about it fully. “Especially Lee,” says Els. “He’s really paid his dues. If there’s one man who deserves one, it’s him. He reminds me a lot of Colin Montgomerie. I wouldn’t say Lee is running out of time – he’s strong as an ox and he’s working out and he’s doing all the right things and has been doing that for quite some time, but it just hasn’t fallen his way for some other reasons. It could be his week.
“You know, it’s a ball-striker’s dream, Lytham. And he’s a ball-striker. So it could happen, and the same for Luke. He’s number one in the world and has the best short game in the world and when he’s on his game he’s one of the best drivers of the ball. So it’s all there. It’s just a matter of a bit of luck falling your way.”
So many in contention for the Claret Jug, but few with the record that Els has. Sure, he’s missed the cut the last two years but the string of top-fives and top-10s that preceded that pair of lean Opens is extraordinary – and the Olympic Club showed that he is inching his way back towards some serious form.
“You’re going to have your ups and downs and I’ve had my fair share of that,” he says. “You play this game long enough you’re going to have some issues. I’ve been around for 23 years as a professional so just about everything happens. I think I’ve been through the ringer and I’m coming out the other side. I’m still going at it. I’ve looked back at things for long enough. I want to look forward now and see what I can experience.”
The great journey continues.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west