After wandering to the game’s fringe, among the extras on golf’s grandest stages, he’s working his way back to the place we’re accustomed to seeing him.
He’s back on leaderboards, back in contention, back in position to win.
Els’ late summer rise makes him one of the favorites to win the Deutsche Bank Championship and a serious contender to win the FedEx Cup playoffs.
“It’s been coming,” Els said Thursday before his pro-am round. “I still haven’t won this year. I’d love to win a tournament before the end of the year. But at least I’m moving in the right direction.”
Els won the Honda Classic last year, his first PGA Tour title in almost four seasons, but he never rode the momentum back to the game’s highest ranks. He has 44 international titles, 16 PGA Tour victories and three major championship titles, but that resume was beginning to look like a finished work with his game fading. The former No. 1 player in the world had fallen all the way to No. 26 this summer.
Els turns 40 on Oct. 17. That imminent birthday is a wake-up call. Els’ Honda Classic title last season is his only PGA Tour title since 2005.
Els is coming off a tie for second in last week's opening to the FedEx Cup playoffs, The Barclays at Liberty National. That came on the heels of his run at the PGA Championship, where he tied for sixth. Els has finished tied for eighth or better in four of his last six starts.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I’ve had a couple of good weeks now,” Els said. “A win is really on my radar. To do it against a field like we have here this week, and in the FedEx Cup race, that would be a great confidence boost.”
What happened to the Big Easy?
There’s been speculation that Tiger Woods wore him out. Els has finished second to Woods seven times, more than anyone else on the PGA Tour. The frustrations led to a belief that Woods had somehow broken Els.
“People who say that are just making stuff up,” said sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who works with Els. “Ernie’s in a really good place right now. He’s just seeing it, hitting it and staying out of his own way. He’s really believing in himself. You can see it.”
Els’ fade can be traced back to a knee injury, a balky putting stroke and a new life’s work that's consuming more of his time.
“My putting stats have been awful all year, so it’s nice to make some putts,” Els said of his run at The Barclays.
Els ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a water skiing accident in the summer of 2005 and struggled in a sluggish recovery. He didn’t rebound nearly as quickly as Tiger Woods did from his knee surgery last year.
Woods said Els did not put in the hard work needed to come back as quickly as he did.
“It takes time,” Woods said. “Ernie is not a big worker physically, and that’s one of the things that you have to do with an ACL repair. You’ve got to really do a lot of work. I feel pretty good with what I’ve done, and I think Ernie, he could have worked a little bit harder.
“But Ernie travels all around the world, more than any other golfer. He plays all over the place, it’s harder for him.”
Els concedes he returned too quickly from surgery, going back to a world travel schedule that was too much too soon.
Through it all, Els’ velvet putting stroke left him, but that’s also starting to come back.
“We all know he’s got the talent,” Woods said. “It’s just a matter of him getting the confidence.”
Another factor is how Els’ heart has been tugged by matters more important than golf the last two seasons.
Quietly, Els has poured himself into making life better for his son, Ben, and other autistic children like him.
After winning the Honda Classic last year, Els used the platform to bolster his efforts to find a cure for autism. It was the week after the victory that Els first revealed that his then 5-year-old son had autism. Els became a spokesman for Autism Speaks. Shortly after, he moved his family to The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., in great measure to get him better care.
“Going public with Ben was a big deal,” Els said. “I didn’t really realize it was going to be that big a deal, and I’ve really thrown new energy into this new project that we’re busy with. We want to build a nice center for autistic kids down there, basically a school in Florida.”
Els reports progress is terrific on the project, that his knee is completely healthy and that his putter is finally cooperating.
“Things are coming around nicely,” Els said.