But circumstances dictate and Ernie Els was the one who really helped me decide there was life beyond tournament golf – I’m now CEO of The Links Club – and for that I’m eternally grateful. In the summer of 2004, I was working as an on-course commentator at the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond for BBC. So I guess I already was involved in “other” things. On the fourth fairway, Ernie walked diagonally over and gave me what can only be described as a handshake/hug of meeting a friend you hadn’t seen in years.
“Big guy, where the hell have you been? What you up to?” he said. I think my answer of nearing 20 stone but still only 6ft 8in is something that Ernie warmed to, being able to have a good laugh at myself. By the time we got to the ninth (we were now following his group), he had quizzed me on my own golf. Before he walked towards the ninth green after his second shot, he said “you know if you ever need some help let me know, I’m serious…” We were now on the run to another group and off we went.
I didn’t see Ernie again that day and loosely relayed the story to my wife, Alison, when I got home. “What are you going to do about it,” she asked.Clearly the look on my face suggested not much and, before I got a word in, she said “for God’s sake, what an opportunity to pick the brains of a top player”.
As most wives and girlfriends will attest, they see the heartache and disappointment of a missed cut by a shot or the hard practice that doesn’t bear fruit. Looking back, it’s clear why she wanted me to spend time with Ernie. I knew he was staying at the club, so I wrote a personal note simply saying if his offer of advice stood I’d snap his hand off to get an opinion on all I was doing.
I saw him briefly the next week at The Open at Troon. He called me over and gave me his PA’s name and number and said “arrange it for as soon as my schedule allows”.
In mid-September, I flew down to London and spent the day with Ernie. He had just come off the back of a two-week complete rest in South Africa. Zero golf. This was a Monday and he was due to fly to Ireland for a WGC event on the Tuesday night.
I couldn’t get my head round the fact that he’d not hit a ball for two weeks and he was heading over to play in a big event without proper preparation. “How can you take time off in the middle of the season Ernie and feel confident about your game?” This really fascinated me and I kind of knew that I was likely to get an answer that showed a flaw in my mentality. “Big man, you’ve got to rest. I’ve been golfing for more than 30 years. I’m not going lose it in two weeks”. It was so simple and you could tell that he truly believed that. My belief was that I couldn’t take off two days, never mind two weeks. We spoke more about that and, as we played round, he continually said things or asked me questions that had me internally saying “what the hell am I doing”. I played lovely that day and duly knocked in a ten footer to take the money on the last green.
The best advice was still to come. We met Ernie’s wife, Leizl, in the clubhouse for lunch and chatted about our kids and life. Ernie could tell that I was so wrapped up in my golf and desperate to do well that it was holding me back. “Gordon, you’re a good guy, good fun and pretty smart it seems. Can I just tell you that there is more to life than being on tour.
“There is so much more you can do away from from tournament golf and be happy. You don’t need to be playing all this mini-tour stuff. Go make a living doing something else, whether that be in golf or not. Jeez, you have so much knowledge on the game through (my long-time coach) Bob Torrance alone that you are in good shape. And honestly your golf was great to watch.”
I left with my head scrambled but, by the time I got home, I decided I would give it my all at the Qualifying School and then take stock. There was so much I learned that day, both on the course technically but more mentally. And off the course was where the benefit really was. Just chatting and getting a fresh opinion on where to go now.
Ernie won’t even realise that he changed my life. I think he simply had me think differently. From reading Ross’ comments, there is no doubt that’s what he needed. The sad part was how much Ross was not enjoying golf. But it was everything else that caused that, not the game itself really.
The game is the best there is. I love my golf as much as I ever did. Hopefully Ross gets settled in his new career and hits the fairways again realising how much he still loves the game now the baggage has gone.