It was 1994 when he won the U.S. Open at the tender age of 24. And it was 97 when he won it again. He won the British in 2002. He almost won the Masters in 2004 ' remember that picture of him, forlorn and standing all alone on the putting green munching an apple - after Phil Mickelson birdied the 18th to send him down to bitter defeat?
Ernie is 37 now ' he had a birthday just last week. Hes only about six months older than Mickelson, so he should still be in the prime of his career. But youve heard precious little of him this year. Hes been demoted from the Big 3 or Big 4, whatever the media chose to call it. A devastating knee injury suffered when he ruptured the ACL ligament in July of last year meant that he wouldnt play for five months, and affected his swing for more than a year. He plays in the Chrysler Championship this week, almost a forgotten man.
Actually, it hasnt been that bad of a year, if were talking the average player here. Hes finished in the top 10 three times in the U.S. without missing a cut. On the European Tour, he finished third in the British Open, second in Dubai, and won in South Africa. But ' no one refers to him as one of the best in the world anymore.
Is that a mistake? Well, it could be. Ernie is again making noises like he is about to win.
Lets see, he finished fifth in the WCG-American Express less than a month ago, then finished fifth in the Dunhill Links in Scotland in his last outing. When he returns to the United States after being gone for two months, its difficult to tell that hes lost too much.
Els isnt promising anything dramatic. Ive just got to build for next year, basically, he says. But he could make some real noise this week and next, when he will probably play in the Tour Championship (he currently stands 30th on the U.S. money list and the top 30 make the field.)
Ernie doesnt blame his downturn on his injury unless hes specifically asked. But its glaringly obvious theres been something amiss throughout the year. For a long time, he twitched when he put pressure on the knee. He has slumped to being just 60th in driving distance, losing more than eight yards of his figure of last year.
I felt the knee for a long time, Els said, but what's the use of me saying it's not good? It's not going to do me any good; it's not going to do anybody any good. So you don't want to say how terrible things are.
Ernie has worked diligently with David Leadbetter and at home near London to get his swing back, fighting through the bad habits he picked up while subconsciously favoring the knee. But he says hes found something.
I worked with a good friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, he said at the Dunhill three weeks ago, and he found something in the swing. I went with it last week (in the American Express) and it went great.
Actually, though, Els turned the corner at the U.S. Open in June, finally feeling stabilized enough that he could really put pressure on the knee. There he finished T-26, but he felt no pangs in swinging the club. It was simply a process of working through the bad habits he had picked up. And since then, Ernie has steadily improved.
Lead (Leadbetter) - he said because of the knee, I don't want to put all my weight onto the knee, on the downswing, said Els. I didn't quite complete my backswing because I was just subconsciously, I think I was just trying to stay away from the knee. And doing that got me into those situations, where I got into that classic stuck position. And from there I hit it either right or left.
You can't do that in a golf swing - you've got to go left. You can't hit the golf ball from the right side. I think it had a little bit to do with this little slump I'm in. And as the knee feels better I can get into better positions in my swing, and I think it's now only a matter of time before things are going to turn around.
Strangely enough, Ernies putting suffered during his absence. He currently stands way down in the No. 82 position on tour in that category, after being as high as ninth only two years ago. But that aspect of his game is coming around, too. At last, he can see some real positives throughout.
It's been pretty tough, he confesses. It's been more than a year now, and I've had a rough time with the game and the injuries. But I feel physically fine. There's really no problem. At the moment that's good. I've done a lot of hard work physically on that and on my golf game. But it's been a tough 12 months, to be honest with you.
But through it all, his love of the game hasnt diminished one iota.
Golf is still my life, he says. That is the core of my life. And without golf I couldn't see myself sitting in an office right now and doing those other things that we are busy with. I've got a good ten years to do what I've always wanted to do. I'm really just 100 percent playing golf right now.