ANCASTER, Ontario – Ernie Els finally made it to Canada for this week’s RBC Canadian Open. After a stop in London, where he arrived just before midnight Sunday, too late for son Ben, who was asleep, but wife Liezl, daughter Samantha and Els’ friend Johann Rupert and his wife were awake to greet the 2012 Open Championship winner.
“It was a great day,” Els said about Monday, after lounging by the pool with his family and friends. “We had a beautiful day in the pool and just chilling all day.”
Just 72 hours ago, Els won an unexpected second Open Championship after a collapse by Australian Adam Scott on the final four holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club on England’s Lancashire coast.
Seeing Ernie Els receiving the Claret Jug, giving his victory speech and then watching him in the press center afterwards, the four-time major winner was very unemotional, maybe even a little detached after his stunning victory Sunday.
It’s clear in the following days that Scott’s struggle down the stretch was something that even Els didn’t predict, but yet the South African was familiar with failure enough in majors to know how difficult it is to close the deal.
Els has the emotional scars to prove he has been in a lot of tussles and most times did not come out the victor.
Of Els’ 33 top-10 finishes in major championships, 29 were not victories. In 2000, Els finished second to Tiger Woods in the Masters, the U.S. Open and Open Championship. So heartbreak in majors, as well as in other PGA Tour events, is familiar to Els.
In his 335 events as a professional on the PGA Tour, Els has 121 top 10s, including 17 runners-up finishes and 18 third-place showings. In many of those top finishes, if something were to have gone Els’ way or the eventual winner were to have misstepped down the stretch, the Hall of Famer would have added to his hardware collection. He certainly realized that he had landed on the right side of fortune on Sunday.
“I just felt that Scotty was going for his first one; I’ve been there. I know the nerves, tension,” Els said in recalling his feelings Sunday deep into the round. “The bigger your lead is, almost the bigger the tension is. When a guy’s one shot behind, you play harder. When you’re four ahead, you’re not quite playing your game. So I just had a feeling he might be thinking that way, and so if I could just get in the house with some kind of a number – but I needed to be aggressive. That’s why I played the way I did.”
Els also had history on his side. He had played Royal Lytham twice, in the 1996 and 2001 Opens, both times just coming up a little short.
In 1996, Els sat at 7 under, eight shots back of leader Tom Lehman, who had shot 64 on Saturday and, at 15 under and six strokes ahead of Nick Faldo, appeared to be a certain winner.
Els turned in 33 and then made four birdies on the back nine. Unlike last Sunday, however, he bogeyed the 16th and 18th holes to finish tied for second with Mark McCumber, two shots from Lehman, who shot 2-over 73.
The 2001 Open, which David Duval won, was a little different. Duval shot 67 on the final day, and Els tied for third. However, Els learned from his mistakes that year, as well.
“Sixteen in ‘96, I blew it because I should have hit driver down there,” Els said. “Eighteen, I also played it wrong in ‘96. I wasn’t aggressive enough.”
So when Els made the turn last weekend, irrespective of his bogey at the ninth hole, he committed himself to aggressive play and recalled the positives from his past Opens.
“Every day at 18, I hit driver and I gave myself short second shots in,” Els said in noting his aggressive play. “It just fit my eye this year, and the left-right breeze was blowing, and I could really play that little cut all week.”
The history Els had at Lytham and the experience he had from his past disappointments gave him a decisive edge.
And the thought that he was unemotional or detached?
“You appreciate it so much, and I just wanted to take that feeling and not let it go,” Els said. “It’s a crazy feeling. I just wanted to just keep holding on to those great thoughts. It’s a very calming feeling.”