PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Even after a surprising return to the leaderboard, even after a round that gave credence to the notion that his short-game woes are behind him, Ernie Els couldn’t bring himself to say the word.
“Listen, I don’t have the…” Els started, then stopped. He paused, lowered his voice and crouched a little closer to the small group of reporters huddled around him behind the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass.
“I don’t have the yips, you know?” he said, this time barely above a whisper. “That’s a different deal.”
Most golfers hesitate to give breath to the dreaded y-word, but Els’ pause is even more understandable. After all, he lived through the worst-case scenario on the game’s biggest stage just last month, undone by a six-putt on the opening hole of the Masters.
“There’s a short up there somewhere and you just can’t do what you normally do,” Els said at the time. “I was standing there, I’ve got a 3-footer, I’ve made thousands of three-footers and I just couldn’t take it back.”
That was simply the latest struggle for Els on the greens, as on at least two other occasions in recent months his short-range misses have turned into viral sensations.
But Thursday at The Players Championship, Els once again resembled the player who has won four major titles. He made birdies on five of his first seven holes, turned in 31 and ultimately ended up with a 6-under 66 that tied for his lowest round this season and left him three shots behind Jason Day.
That balky putter, the one that has caused so many headaches of late, actually turned into a strength. Els needed only 24 putts to complete his round, holing every putt he faced inside 10 feet.
“He looked awesome out there,” said Aaron Baddeley, who played alongside Els in the opening round. “He putted really nice, he hit a lot of good putts. The putts he didn’t make looked like they were going in. He’s obviously done some really good work, and it paid off.”
In the wake of his Masters debacle, Els said he was flooded with input from people hoping to help repair his frayed nerves. They came from all corners of the globe: South Africa, England, Denmark, Sweden. Some offered tips, while others offered equipment fixes.
For Els, though, the best results came from simplifying his thought process – not adding new components to it.
“A lot of people want to help you and get you better and so on,” he said. “It’s like a cliché. You ask all these guys, (but) if I just did what I thought I should do, I’d be better off. But sometimes you listen.”
It was listening that did him in at Augusta National, as a well-meaning tip led to a cringe-worthy display on the opening green.
It also led Els to begin reading up on the science behind the yips and what causes them, after which the 46-year-old concluded he has been afflicted by a different condition.
“That’s like, something neurological. Mine is just a lack of confidence, and I’ve just got to see more golf balls go in the hole and I think I’ll be there,” he said. “It’s just kind of an emotion, an anxiety, and it comes from a lack of confidence.”
That confidence was not lacking during Els’ opening round, as the “Big Easy” was back to his smiling, affable ways. But as any player who has faced a similar plight can attest, a potential relapse lurks around the corner of every 3-foot putt.
Bernhard Langer understands that better than perhaps any other Tour player, having first been afflicted with putting issues in 1976. Langer estimated Wednesday that he suffered through four different bouts with the yips during his career, each one forcing him to face some sobering questions.
“Every time you have it, you wonder, ‘Well, will this ever go away, and how?’” Langer said. “You know how it is; when we’re in a dark valley, we can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you want to get out of there as soon as possible.”
Els addressed his problems head-on in the immediate aftermath of Augusta, but, like Langer, he then sought to put it behind him as quickly as possible. For Els, that meant getting back to work right away with the RBC Heritage the following week, where his putter began to turn around. It also meant relying on the advice of swing coach David Leadbetter, with whom Els has worked off-and-on for more than two decades.
“Me and him, we understand each other like I understand my wife,” Els said. “I know where he’s going with all this stuff.”
Leadbetter has had Els reviewing footage of his swing from successful campaigns like 2002 and 2004 and Els, now fully healthy after battling recent knee and hip ailments, is finally able to replicate what he sees.
“I feel comfortable, and I’ve been working hard since (the Masters) on things that I have been doing,” he said. “Hopefully it holds up. I feel good.”
At least for one day, Ernie Els kept his demons at bay – even though the scar tissue they have inflicted remains clearly visible. Tomorrow, the battle begins anew.