At 24, he had won the U.S. Open once. At 27, he had won it again. By the year 2000, at the age of 30, he had won 33 times around the globe. This had been one of the most successful players on the face of the earth ' and he was just hitting the prime golfing age.
Then, last year it all vanished. He forgot how to win. He was searching but not finding. Ernie Els was a name mentioned somewhere in the second tier of favorites when you were deciding who might win the next major. The smooth, supple swing was still there, but the scoring average wasnt. Ernie had been reduced to the category of others in the field, a man who had the talent to jump up and bite you, but most likely wouldnt.
Last week, he took a giant step toward rectifying all that. He played three brilliant rounds to take a huge lead at Doral, then hung on Sunday while Tiger Woods threatened to blow right by him and wipe out his once-imposing advantage. Ernie had done it, holding fast while the gales threatened to blow him right off his feet. Now they are all talking about him again.
It had actually ended in 1998. That was the year of Els big pratfall. He had an eight-shot lead over Woods at the Johnnie Walker beginning the last round ' and lost to him in a playoff. That one loss sent Els spiraling down from his perch atop golfs best. He would win every now and then from that moment to last year, but he became a top-10 golfer instead of the Top One.
In 1998, of course, Els was still in his 20s. In 2002, hes in his early 30s. He undoubtedly has lost some off the distance. But he must have gained something in the noggin ' which can be a reasonable trade-off.
Els did something at Doral Sunday that he didnt do in Thailand in 1998. I stayed committed, he said, meaning he approached every shot as if he were certain he was making the right stroke. He wasnt really certain that day in 98.
Ernie is brutally honest. He cant lie to himself to make him be someone else. Other players have that knack to kid themselves into thinking they can beat anyone ' at least for a moment. This guy isnt like that, although he knows that he can beat any one at any time. He knows, however, that he can be beaten, and that knowledge had defeated him at times.
So, Els isnt going to say the win made him a tougher player, or better, or anything like that. He frankly doesnt know, although he hopes so.
You know, I would like to think so, he told the writers gathered at the Genuity Championship. But you know, next time I might play better. There are always learning experiences you go through in life, and especially on the golf course. So this is preparation for the next time. At least I can fall back on this one, and it could only get better.
Frank Nobilo knows Els very well. They are neighbors most of the year at Lake Nona in Orlando. The two played in Europe together, in Australia and New Zealand together, even some in South Africa together. Nobilo knows, as a friend knows, what a loss in the Genuity would have meant to his buddy. He especially knew what it would have meant if Els had lost to Tiger. Ernie is human, and human beings get hurt by the words that would have been written about the duel.
If (the players) are honest, theyd admit that, Nobilo said. You might not read it yourself, but you hear about it from family and friends. You try shutting it out, but you are human.
Sometimes you have to quiet the critics. You dont know what might happen when you get the monkey off your shoulder. Success is habit forming. Now Tiger knows hes not going to intimidate Ernie, but Ernie also knows he has to play well to beat Tiger.
And so Els leaves for a week in Dubai before returning to Florida to play Bay Hill. He still was a little rushed, but there was plenty of time to reflect on it all when things quieted down a little.
You know, if I look back when I get on the plane tonight and I am flying and after a couple of beers when I have relaxed a little, I will think back on this and maybe look at it as a blessing in disguise maybe for the future, Els was saying.
I have had some tough, very tough breaks in the last year, not winning tournaments, and this definitely would have been a very difficult one to swallow.
But you know, I felt like I committed myself better this time around. And its hard to say, but I felt that I hung in the last 45 holes pretty well.
And with that, it was time for the Dubai Express to leave. Hes there now, but not before time for joking or maybe it wasnt a joke. Somebody wondered if his appearance fee had just gone up.
Ernie had to chuckle. Yeah ' why do you think I am going?
Expect those appearance fees to stay higher for a few more years.