The Open: The Els masterpiece is work in progress

Defending champion, South Africa's Ernie Els, plays onto the seventh green at Muirfield. Picture: AFP/Getty
Defending champion, South Africa's Ernie Els, plays onto the seventh green at Muirfield. Picture: AFP/Getty
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The experiences of Nick Faldo seem relevant when contemplating Ernie Els’s chances this week, since the reigning champion is hoping to do what the Englishman did by winning successive Opens held at Muirfield.

Of course, Els also won the title at Royal Lytham last year, which means the Big Easy is more than entitled to his VIP room status at Greywalls, the nearby hotel where he also
resided in comfort, and to such good effect, in 2002.

“Memory serves you well,” said Els yesterday, shortly after handing back the Claret Jug to the R & A chief executive Peter Dawson. Memory certainly served Faldo well in ’92, when he returned to Muirfield, having already unlocked its secrets five years earlier, to pick up the Claret Jug again.

A decade spans Muirfield-hosted Opens this time around. This is in line with the present rotation policy. However, it could also be taken as a sign that the R & A are wearying slightly of being taken to task for
appearing to endorse male-only golf clubs.

As current champion, it is understandable that Els was called to address this issue, and it was equally understandable that someone with such happy memories of the course didn’t want to rock the boat too much, although there was a hint of condemnation in his answer.

Asked how he would explain this practice of barring females to his daughter, Els replied: “Well, she is quite a hot-headed girl, just like my wife – I would have to choose my words very carefully.”

“It’s a hard one,” he conceded. “The club’s been like this for many years. It’s been around, I would imagine, for 150 years, and they have never thought about changing the policy. But we go to play the Open championship at this wonderful golf course and I will go and play it in the Sahara desert is if I have to.

“You can ask the chairman why the policy is in place. It is what it is – and we play where we play.”

Of course, Muirfield bears some resemblance to the Sahara just now in terms of how dry the ground is. It is, Els noted, “a little firmer” to when he won here 11 years ago. But other than that, he added, it is “very similar”. Which is where Els’s past experience could come in very handy. There are a couple of shots he doesn’t want to remember. “There was one on 13,” he grimaced, with reference to that memorable Sunday, when he prevailed after a four-man play-off. Another shot he won’t be looking to replicate is the pulled 5-iron at the 18th hole, in the play-off. It
almost cost him the title.

“Experience, I feel, is a big part in playing these championships – to know the way to miss it,” he said. “There are certain places where you just cannot go, and I am sure I have been to some of those places.”

“That’s where experience plays a big part,” he added. “Some of the young players who come here the first time, they still have to learn that under duress. There’s no learning curve like being under a lot of pressure. You can play as many practice rounds as you want, but unless you have played it already under a lot of stress, you don’t know exactly how you are going to react.

“That’s where experience comes in and I will probably try to draw from that playing this tournament.”

It also has to be remembered that Els finished fifth here in 1992, in only his second
appearance in the tournament. Within another two years, he had won his maiden major – at the US Open. Just three years later he won that title again. And then? As Tiger Woods’ grip on the sport tightened, Els fell away slightly, before he reminded everyone of his worth at Muirfield, having taken advantage of Woods’ troubles on the storm-hit Saturday.

There then followed an even longer spell in what he might refer to as the wilderness. Lesser players would still regard the 11-year hiatus between Open
titles as pretty satisfying, since it included 15 top ten finishes in all majors. But Els isn’t any other player. Grateful though he was to be included in the Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, he was concerned that it was a signal that the Big Easy was now at rest forever,
certainly in other people’s view, if not his own.

Following his remarkable win last year, he is happy to have convinced people otherwise. “When I was 41, getting inducted, we still felt there was a lot of golf to be played,” he said. “So that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to play golf now.”

Els has a very endearing habit, when referring to past triumphs, as saying “we” did this, and “we” did that. Possibly he means both him and his caddie, long-term associate Ricci Robert. Or maybe he is referring to his wife, Leizl, and two children, the youngest of whom, Ben, was diagnosed as autistic in 2008. Ben is one reason why he treasures last year’s surprise success more than any other – Els was rated as an 80-1 outsider before the tournament started.

“The first two [majors] came within three years and then I had to wait 20 years for the next two,” he said. “It’s been quite a ride. I am very proud of the way we’ve stuck with it. And after having had it my own way for a good five to ten years, and then having to really work hard for it, it feels very special to have won it the way we did.”

Lytham, he added, felt “very special”. The hairs on his arms were standing up “from the 18th tee right through to the putt that went in”.

He agreed that winning a major has been become a more exhausting process. Even much younger champions such as Justin Rose and Adam Scott, who made up for being overhauled by Els at Lytham 12 months ago by winning the Masters earlier this year, have spoken of being mentally and physically drained by their successes. After his last Open success, Els missed the cut at the next tournament he played, in Toronto.

Els is in a good position to judge how the demands have changed in recent times, since his major victories span nearly 20 years. He reflected on his US Open success at Oakmont in 1994, and how he went into what amounted to hiding after it, something he would be hard-pressed to do now. He remembers turning down an invitation to appear on the David Letterman show, returning, instead, to England, where he was based. “I didn’t even own a house in those days,” he said with a smile.
Renton Laidlaw, the renowned Scottish golf writer and broadcaster, came to his aid.

“I got back on the plane, myself and Leizl, and flew back to London, and we rented a cottage from Renton, and we hid from the world there,” he recalled.

“Because of the media thing, the whole thing has changed a lot, especially since ’94,” he added. “Maybe even in the last five years. There are so many storylines that people want.”

Whether he can provide another hugely popular one now remains to be seen.