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Big Hearted Champion

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Ernie Els stood inside that perilous bunker, stalked again by all the major championship demons he'd been trying to exorcize for too long. He then hit the second best bunker shot of the day.
 
'The one on 13 was more difficult,' Els said. 'On 18 I had more room to work the ball. I just had to keep my balance on the left side. And I could almost hit it a little heavy and the ball would still release, but the one on 13 I was still amazed I got it out there and almost holed it.'
 
The two best pot bunker shots since Brian Watts' miracle at Birkdale in '98 rescued Els from what would have been a disastrous collapse, the kind from which he might not have recovered for some time.
 
'Some people just never recover,' said Els. 'I wouldn't say I would have been one of them if I didn't win, but I would have been a really different person after this. But now in a good way, I'm a different person again. Now I'm back on track. I can now legitimately try and win the majors. Four majors.'
 
After a disappointing finish at Augusta, Ernie spoke of the little guy on his shoulder whispering negative thoughts. It's the little guy all of us drag around when we play. It's the little guy who's deathly afraid of Tiger Woods but no one else it seems.
 
'I guess I'll never get rid of him, but it's getting better,' he explained. 'I mean this week I had a chance a couple of times to break away and the little guy just kept sitting on my shoulder. Even on the last playoff hole, I got him back again. So it was difficult. But I'm proud of myself for getting this one.'
 
Els has always said his goal was to win the career slam. He's halfway home now, even if it took five years to take that incredibly difficult and exhausting second step.
 
Too humble to accept the tag as the guy who stopped the slam, Ernie added, 'I think the weather stopped the slam, too. It definitely stopped Tiger in his tracks yesterday. Tiger is probably going to have another opportunity to do it. He's the only player that can probably do it.'
 
Els spent countless tournament days graciously answering questions about Tiger Woods over the last several years. Where some other guys bristled when the inevitable questions about Woods poured in, Ernie spoke honestly and without rancor. Some criticized him for giving Tiger too much credit. But Ernie's simply too good-natured to respond in bitter fashion.
 
And now, at last, it's his time to bask in the glory. Most importantly, it's unlikely you'd ever come across a superstar athlete as warm and nice and down to earth as the 131st Open Champion. Talk to Ernie and you'd never know you're standing next to one of the finest athletes in the world. He's a classy champion, and a better human being.