Getting to Be Easy Again

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KAPALUA, Hawaii -- It's the start of a new year for Ernie Els.. But its something from the past that puts a smile on his face.
 
That confidence of old is back.
 
I feel comfortable with myself again and my game, Els pleasantly said Wednesday after his pro-am in the Mercedes Championships.
 
Els is walking around the Plantation Course with the carefree nature that has earned him the moniker 'The Big Easy. ' The nickname applies as much to his sweet swing as it does to his nature.
 
But two years ago his attitude and passion were soured. Soured by a bevy of second-place finishes. Soured by a lack of winning. Soured by a loss of confidence.
 
Els finished runner-up five times on the PGA Tour in 2000, three times in major championships. That frustration carried over into the following season where Els said, The first six months (of 2001), I was just nowhere. I was just flat. I was going through the motions.
 
He failed to win on tour that season, and ended the year 15th on the money list. But there was a positive change in the middle of the year.
 
At the British Open, he met sports psychologist Josh van Stithout. The two worked on Els mental approach, and by the time the official season came to a close, things started to turn for the better.
 
Els teamed with countryman Retief Goosen to win the World Cup, and then captured the Vodacom Players Championship in South Africa.
 
The roller coaster was on its way back up. He won six times around the world in 2002, including the Genuity Championship and British Open ' his third career major title, and first since 1997.
 
The victory at Muirfield proved to be his greatest triumph, though it was nearly his most devastating defeat.
 
Els led by three strokes on the back nine Sunday, then squandered his advantage only to win in a five-hole playoff over four others.
 
After closing out his year with a victory in the Nedbank Challenge, Els stayed in his native South Africa and finally got a chance to watch the final round of the Briitish Open on tape.
 
I get to 16 (where he made double bogey) and I want to fast forward it, he joked.
 
Els is playing in his first competitive event since his $2 million triumph at the Nedbank. He used the off-season to relax and spend time with his wife and two kids, including a son who was born in October.
 
Hell need that resource of rest to carry him through a hectic first couple of months.
 
After two weeks in Hawaii ' for the Mercedes and Sony Open, hell compete in Singapore, play twice in Australia, come back to the U.S. for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and then travel to Dubai.
 
His appearance at Dubai, which he won last year, means hell be skipping his title defense at Doral. Els remarked it was a difficult decision to make, but one that was ultimately decided on the fact that hell receive an appearance fee to play overseas.
 
Els is one of the more open players on tour. Ask him a question and youll get an honest response. Hes not afraid to let you know that Tiger Woods got inside his head a couple of years ago.
 
I was just caught up in that kind of whirlwind of his, said Els, who admitted he was a bit off balance mentally when Woods beat him by 15 strokes in the 2000 U.S. Open and by eight in the British Open (this after Els led Woods by one through 36 holes).
 
He just totally blew us out of the water. I think after that, I was trying different things. Hopefully, I wont do that again, he said.
 
But now the train is back on track.
 
I think I eventually mentally got stable again, my own little battle, Els said. I just basically, you know, played my game again. Instead of trying to improve things, you know, doing things out of the ordinary, trying to chase Tiger down, I just thought, Play my game, see where it goes.
 
It led to a half-dozen victories in 02 and a career defining major championship.
 
Els is not only again at peace with his game and mentality, hes in comfortable surroundings this week.
 
He made the trip from South Africa because he loves the venue, and has had some good, if not frustrating results.
 
The 33-year-old lost to Woods in an epic duel at Kapalua in 2000, and then blew a four-stroke lead midway through the 2001 tournament to finish two back of Jim Furyk.
 
That second time I should have really won it, Els remarked.
 
But that was the past, and Els is focused on the present as well as the future.
 
If Im playing my game to my ability, you know, I can compete. Thats going to be my test this year, he said. I really want to compete well again doing my thing, and see where it goes.
 
Related Links:
  • Ernie Els Bio
  • Full coverage of the Mercedes Championships