Rude: Ernie Els proves he's still got it

Ernie Els holds the Claret Jug, 'The Golf Champion Trophy' after winning the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes.

Ernie Els holds the Claret Jug, 'The Golf Champion Trophy' after winning the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes.

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Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com, usually on Wednesday.

In October 2010, I asked Ernie Els how many majors he thought he would have won had Tiger Woods not been born.

“I’d say six or seven,” Els said then, in Bermuda at the PGA Grand Slam. “Maybe more.”

Here’s one vote for more. I’m thinking Els might be around double digits had Woods not come onto the scene.

Els had three major titles at the time and, of course, has four after his Open Championship victory Sunday. He has called his first, at the 1994 U.S. Open, his most important because, at 24, it put on him high on the world stage and gave him a 10-year exemption.

But considering the circumstances, the 2002 British was perhaps the most impressive because he pulled himself up to pull that one off. Several times in 1998-2000, Woods took down Els and impacted his confidence. If Els had not been beaten down like that during those years, there’s no telling how many majors he’d have now.

“I knew this young kid was doing amazing things and he was only going to get better,” Els told me in Bermuda. “That was a demoralizing thing.”

Els has suggested those losses hurt him more than he could believe possible. As one British writer wrote this week, for a time it looked as if his career and mental outlook might have been terminally affected.

The Big Easy perhaps never was so demoralized as he was after finishing second at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He had given it his best shot but lost to Woods by a remarkable 15 shots.

His answer to one of the questions afterward still sticks in my mind as one of the most memorable quotes I’ve ever heard at a golf tournament.

Early on in the Q&A, someone asked whether Els could believe that Woods had broken Old Tom Morris’ record for largest margin of victory in a major championship.

Els’ response was a classic.

“Old Tom Morris?” he said incredulously before repeating it for effect. “Old Tom Morris? Man, if Old Tom Morris were around today, Tiger Woods would beat him by 80 strokes.”

The Els who beat a collapsing Adam Scott by one stroke at Royal Lytham did so because down the stretch he putted like he did in the 1990s or early 2000s. Putting, of course, has been his Achilles' heel in recent years, even prompting a switch to a belly putter, an instrument he had panned.

Even though he ranked 71st in total putts at Lytham, Els excelled on the final seven holes. He converted from 6 feet for birdie at 12, from 10 feet for birdie at 14, saved par from 6 feet at 15 and gave himself hope, and ultimately victory, with the 18-foot closing birdie.

His success in England was highly popular, for myriad reasons.

One, he’s a likable guy. For years I’ve thought he was the superstar golfer you’d most want as your next-door neighbor. On the playful side, Els has stated his goal has been to own a bar in the Caribbean and run tours there. On the serious side, he has raised a lot of money for autism, a developmental disorder that has afflicted his youngest child, Ben.

Two, he has pulled himself off the deck so many times. Little wonder, then, that he extended sympathy to Scott. He has been on the side of pain.

Three, at 42, he overcame his problems on the greens and proved people wrong. The latter was a clear goal that he expressed to me during that Bermuda interview.

“The desire is very much still there,” Els said then. “I still feel like I can win majors. I’d like to prove everybody else wrong basically. I still feel like I’ve got a lot left.”

After all those bumps, he was right.

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