Els wins again as British Open defense nears


I spent the better part of an afternoon at a loss to once again describe Ernie Els. His carefree brilliance, the ease at which he goes about his business, his longevity in remaining among the world’s best for so many years. Nothing new here, really.

I mean, golf writers have been spending the last two decades waxing poetic about the Big Easy’s admirable traits, so on the heels of his latest victory at the BMW International Open, what sweeping generalizations can we make? That he has a pretty swing? That he’s capable of winning anywhere, anytime? Come on. We knew all this already. We’ve known it forever.

It wasn’t until the final line of “Thunder Road” bounced from speakers across the room – ”We’re pulling out of here to win…” – transferring from what had been barely noticeable background noise to an idea invading this blank slate, that it hit me.

Ernie Els is like the Bruce Springsteen of golf.

Think about it: Each guy has been cranking out successful work for longer than most of his peers. Each is beloved in his native land, but nearly equally adored halfway around the world. Each – and this is something very different than the last sentence – has few detractors, people who don’t care for him or what he does professionally.

And each is almost taken for granted in the way he continuously improves – or at least treads water, which in both cases means remaining near the top.

Photos: Els' career through the years

Els by the numbers

I’ll quit the analogy while I’m ahead – and no, I don’t know if this also means Vijay Singh is Mick Jagger (they both tend to strut and have a guitar-sized chip on their shoulders?) or Phil Mickelson is Jon Bon Jovi (you either love the guy or love to hate him?). But it should stand as a nice little coincidence that just as reports circulate that Springsteen is preparing to get back into the studio for a new album, Els is similarly preparing for an Open Championship that is earmarked with his storylines all over its surface.

There’s the fact that Els won at Muirfield the last time an Open was held there. Back in 2002, he outlasted three others in a playoff to claim his third career major championship title. At the time, he was 32, right in the prime of a burgeoning Hall of Fame career, and there was every reason to believe that his third major was a stepping stone to even more.

By the time he won last year’s Open, Els actually was a Hall of Fame member, which in itself suggests that he would be past that prime of a decade earlier. Maybe he was, but the back nine of Els’ career is apparently still better than the front side of so many others. He won at Royal Lytham when Adam Scott imploded in grand fashion; now he enters next month’s edition of the event as defending champion and one of the odds-on favorites to win it again.

That’s because at 43, he’s still capable of carefree brilliance, even if they now come in short, poignant bursts rather than prolonged bouts of consistency. Els’ victory on Sunday in Germany was the 68th professional win of his career. He’s won everywhere from Kapalua to Congressional, from Dubai to Durban, and yet each time he’s won in the last few years, there’s a little bit more of a celebration, just in case this time is the last time. Not that there’s any evidence to show it would be. In fact, quite the contrary – prior to winning this past week, he had finished in a share of fourth place at the U.S. Open, a final-round 1-under 69 leaving him just a few strokes shy of giving a serious run at a fifth career major.

It could happen at Muirfield, the biggest storyline in a tourney chock full of those surrounding him.

After being informed that he is now the oldest player to win the BMW, Els responded, “I'm really young, believe me. I'm a very young 43-year-old. There's no younger 43-year-old than me, I promise you.”

It’s difficult to think of Els as a young 43-year-old. He’s the Gary Player of this generation, logging more miles across more continents than any of his contemporaries. Big deal, you might say. Comfy private jets with their comfy beds and comfort food are hardly enough to weather a guy, you might contend.

Sure, he’s not exactly taking Greyhound buses and sleeping in a Motel 6 each week, but global travel of even the most lavish kind is enough to take a toll. This past week he went from Merion to Munich, enough to leave most people jetlagged and bleary-eyed, but just another cross-continent journey for a guy who’s been doing this for longer than he wasn’t.

“[You] get to my age, to get a win, it's a wonderful feeling,” he said afterward. “Hopefully it gives me the confidence that I needed. Two more majors left, I've played quite well the last two, but I need a bit of a spark in the next two. So hopefully this will help. It definitely will.”

For two decades, we’ve known all about Els’ pretty swing, globetrotting schedule and ability to win anywhere, anytime. What we’re learning now is that none of it is eroding now that he’s a self-proclaimed “young 43-year-old.” Based on his return to Muirfield and last year’s win, he was already going to be one of the main stories entering the year’s third major. Based on his recent play, he may be the main story once it’s over, too.