Babineau: Did Ernie Els see this coming? Yes, he did

Ernie Els reacts to a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.

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Did Ernie Els see another major coming? He did, and months before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he discussed the prospects in a story that ran in Golfweek on Jan. 21, 2011:

• • •

KAPALUA, Hawaii - The sun is setting on a Friday night in paradise, and all but one of the 32 players left on Maui for the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions has departed the golf course. There are fish to catch, great restaurants to sample and bubbling hot tubs summoning. As tournaments go, this no-cut, guaranteed-paycheck event is no grindfest. In fact, if it weren’t for players needing to hit a few balls just to get loose before a round, Kapalua would survive just fine without a practice range.

The one man still sticking around? Ernie Els, three-time major champion, who is on the putting green tinkering with his stroke after a four-hour quarrel with his putter on Kapalua’s Plantation Course. Big Easy? Not on this evening. He’s releasing some steam after a third-round 74 during which he used 36 strokes on the greens, a frustrating round that whisked him out of contention. One day earlier, he’d made nine birdies and fired 64 (“He didn’t even try,” laughed playing competitor Rocco Mediate). That day, Els’ golf was so fluent, so effortless, as seemingly only he and a handful of top stars can sometimes make the game appear.

“I can’t handle it when I play ‘68’ golf and I walk away with a 74,” he said candidly. “I cannot live with that. I’ve done it all – just about all – but I cannot leave the game like that. I just want to have my game, everything in place, and I can be a happy man. Then I wouldn’t mind if I shot 74. Yesterday, it was right there. And today I didn’t trust myself.

“It’s within myself. I know it’s right there. It’s so close . . . ”

• • •

So close. Those words echo as a pro golfer’s tortuous lament. Els is 41 now, and has a robust global wine business. His golf design company has taken on projects all over – South Africa, China, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain. He can collect stamps on a passport as few others can. The South African has been traveling the globe since he was 13, when he first visited the U.S. for the Junior Worlds in San Diego, and will go into the Golf Hall of Fame on a first-ballot election this May. Years ago, Els’ great-aunt spotted him on television and asked Ernie’s mother, Hettie, “When is the little bugger going to get a proper job?”

He’s doing OK. Last year Els passed $40 million in career PGA Tour earnings. That doesn’t include bounty from 23 victories in Europe and 22 others in South Africa and the rest of the world.

With his two children growing fast, Els would not get questioned if he wanted to ease off the throttle, park the private jet in a hangar and put his feet up for a while. But that isn’t how Els’ internal engine runs. Having won three times around the world in 2010, he’s fired up and ready to be a force again.

“That’s the fine line that separates winners from guys who just win a tournament,” said Nick Raffaele, Callaway Golf’s vice president of sports marketing, who signed Els to an equipment endorsement in 2007. “Winners feed off winning. When they win, it burns within them to win more. Some of these guys on Tour, they win and then exhale, and some of them win and say, ‘I could have been a little bit better.’ Ernie is one of those guys who feeds off of it.”

Els won twice on the PGA Tour early in 2010, capturing the WGC-CA Championship at Doral (his first U.S. triumph in two years) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. In December, he won the 100th South African Open in Durban, his fifth SA Open title. His putter may be the club on double probation right now, but it behaved well in Durban, where he shot 25 under par on patchy, bumpy greens.

“I don’t think it’s an age thing,” Els said. “I was always a good putter; I’m still a good putter. But for some reason there is a lot of doubt at the moment about my technique, the putter I should use, all that stuff. On the short ones, I’m kind of tentative at the moment. I was good in Durban and that’s why I won there. More putting weeks like that, and I’m going to be a contender.”

• • •

Having built a strong global brand over two decades, and having already circled the world more times than a satellite, Els is focused on two things in 2011: his family and his golf. Els, his wife Liezl, daughter Samantha and son Ben have established new roots in West Palm Beach, Fla. The lucrative appearance money offers still come, but he finds it easier to say no. At times, at least. He’ll still jet off to Malaysia and South Korea in April, and expects to play in China in November. Then it’s off to the Presidents Cup in Australia and back to South Africa. This season, there’s no early-season Middle East stop, no Scottish Open. Even though he’ll add the Canadian Open and play on five continents, for him, this qualifies as “slowing down.”

“You get drawn in,” Els shrugged, “and it’s a good thing. I’ve done my bit. If I want to do it (travel) I’ll do it, and if I don’t, I don’t feel as if there is any pressure on me.”

He has fallen outside a top-10 World Ranking (he’s 11th) but his golf is showing promise. Mostly, the last few seasons have been far more about a personal journey than a professional one. Two years ago, he and Liezl disclosed that Ben, now 8, has autism. Since that liberating announcement, Els has championed the cause to help families deal with the disorder. He is spearheading a campaign to raise $30 million to help establish the Els Center for Excellence in West Palm Beach, a facility that will educate the international autism community in best practices, therapies, and latest research. Els said when a child with autism turns 14, he either heads off to high school or returns home. Els wants to build a community where those with autism can stay until they are 21, and can learn a trade. He is close to finding the land to build; the goal is to open in 2012.

Telling the world his personal plight proved emancipating, but it also opened Els to a wide sea of emotions. Asked to describe Ernie a few years back, Brad Faxon smiled. “I've got to get my heart rate down to Ernie's,” he said. “It's got to be like 35 or something. He'll never die.” But the past few years, there has been mild depression, guilt, and stress. At times, Els has shown an angry side inside the ropes that contradicts his normally tranquil, laid-back nature.

Most who watched Els’ career dip after a heartbreaking 2004 season (he lost the Masters by a shot and the Open Championship in a playoff) pointed to a reconstructed left knee, but there was much more going on inside.

“It’s a tough deal, let me tell you,” Els said. “It was a shock, and you try to find your feet. We don’t know what the future holds for Ben. Many times, tension comes out. Golf is such an unbelievably tough sport mentally, and if you have other stuff on top of that, it’s very difficult to keep flowing. This whole thing has tested myself – and Liezl, and Samantha, and Ben, too, though Ben just lives his life.

“I’m hard on myself in any case, even if things were perfect. You try not to let it get to you. But sometimes I’m angry. A half-hour after screwing up the 18th hole today, I’m better. I used to be worse; I’m getting better. I just don’t want to be like that. So I’m working on my anger. I try to keep it inside, but sometimes I just want to be left alone.”

Els remains one of the more popular players in the game, especially among his peers. When Cliff Kresge, a PGA Tour/Nationwide Tour journeyman whose son, Mason, battles autism, phoned Els to play in a charity pro-am in Tennessee, Els hopped on a plane and lent his support.

“I think he easily is the most easy-going, easily approachable superstar we have in our game,” said Kresge. “He is such a great guy, very down-to-earth. He’s been very gracious to us. Nothing against all my other friends who come and play, they’re all fantastic – but you get Ernie Els at your event, it’s quite successful. He has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know. ”

• • •

It’s hard to fathom Els will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in four months. As a youth in South Africa, when his maternal grandfather introduced him to the game and the youngster wheeled his pull cart across Kempton Park Golf Club, Els idolized countryman Gary Player, but realized a future in golf was a stretch.

“Me going into the Hall of Fame? It’s ridiculous. I’m an Afrikaans kid,” Els said. “We were looked down on. We were the apartheid people, the roughnecks. Afrikaans kids would play rugby or become policemen. Coming from where we did, my older brother (Dirk) and I, we basically changed golf in South Africa.”

Els will take a month off after the Sony, and then he’ll embark on what he views as a huge season ahead. He perks up when discussing this year’s major championship venues – Augusta, where he has lived a love-hate relationship; Congressional, where he won the 1997 U.S. Open; Royal St. George’s, where he shot four rounds in the 60s in 1993 and tied for sixth as a 23-year-old; and Atlanta Athletic Club, where his length will be a bonus.

Els hasn’t won a major since the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield (“It feels like a different life, it’s so long ago”), but says he has more inside him. At 41, he is cognizant there are critics who are skeptical he’ll ever win another; he feeds off that, driven to prove them wrong.

“I really expect Ernie to have a big year,” says Raffaele. “It’s not only about 2011. He talks about the next few years. He could have won the U.S. Open at Pebble last summer [Els shot 40 on his final nine and finished third], and that took something out of him.

“The putting can come and go, but once you have that DNA of good ballstriking, it’s in you. Plus, you never have to worry about whether Ernie is working. I think that’s probably the one thing that would surprise people the most.”

That explains Els cutting a solitary silhouette on the practice green as daylight fades on a postcard-perfect Friday evening in Hawaii, long after all his peers put their sticks away and vanished into the night.

“I’ll work my ass off,” Els said. “Believe me, when I get all the pieces in place, I know I can still win a major. I don’t give a (blank) what Nick Faldo or anyone says. I know I can do it.”

Does his gut tell him it will happen this year?

“Yeah,” Els answers quickly. He raises his putter toward the sky. “If I can start trusting this thing more, I’m going to be fine.”

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