Ernies Time

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Cuzzie, how are you, hell often say, the loopy smile sweeping across his handsome face.
 
Other times, hell amble by, bigger than youd imagined on television, and maybe reach out to you in another equally affectionate manner. Hello China, comes the cry, followed by a pat on the side of the shoulder.
 
Both greetings are common among the mostly open and friendly South Africans, their way of saying, Hey bro, whats up?
 
Ernie Els genuinely wants to know. Hes golfs least pretentious and least affected star.
 
But then, they dont dish out green jackets to Mr. Congeniality, do they? So, just how does a nice guy like Ernie pry the coat off the back of the games raging, runaway bull, er Tiger?
 
Quit trying so hard. Relax. And based on Ernies 31-under in paradise, he looks very much at ease.
 
The process appears to have begun with the wrenching victory he salvaged at Muirfield. There, Ernie stepped out of the harrowing shadow cast by Woods. Prior to the British, Els hadnt won a major since 1997, roughly the entire span of Tigers dominant, ongoing run.
 
Through it all, through the three runner-up finishes at majors in 2000, Ernie always, always graciously answered questions about Woods greatness to a justifiably fawning press corps.
 
But Ernie had to be thinking that his destiny in golf surely wasnt that of simply some literary caddie or hyperbole machine to perhaps the best player of all time, was it? At times, Ernie did seem beaten, often throwing up his hands and saying, What can you do?
 
Persevere, thats what. And when Tiger finally caught the wrong end of a critical draw, in that howling Round 3 at Muirfield, and when Ernie had stared down his own demons in the playoff, the burden had been lifted from the South Africans broad shoulders. Finally. A major in what really is stage two of his career. The stage on which hell have to be damn good to grab the spotlight from Tiger.
 
Later in the year, Ernies down-to-earth wife, Leizl, gave birth to their second child, a boy named Ben. At 33, Ernie is over the transition from carefree bachelorhood to marriage. Hes settled, and that helps on the golf course.
 
By the way, the youngest Els got a nice boost to the trust fund when Dad grabbed the $2 million first prize before the deliriously happy home fans at the Nedbank Challenge.
 
So, with the Hawaiian record-setter in the books, and the windfall he enjoyed on and off the course in the second half of 2002, Ernie certainly does look primed for a huge year. Hes tightened his famously fluid swing in hopes of improving his greens-in-regulation proficiency. And his soft hands continue to produce brilliant stretches of short-game magic on and around the greens.
 
Looking ahead, hes got probably 10 solid years of high-level golf remaining. Could he win five majors in that time span? Its not a preposterous thought. If he does, then hed finish with eight majors, enough to be regarded as one of the all-time best. Of course, hell have to deal with Tiger every step of the way.
 
Interestingly, Ernie, unlike Tiger, isnt thought of as a guy with a clear vision of his place in history. But dont be fooled by the easy demeanor. The hunch here is that lately Ernies given the subject a bit of consideration.
 
Someday, he might well pull up to Woods, say, at the Hall of Fame, and ask, Cuzzie, how are you?