Tait: Ernie Els went long to capture 2012 Open

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.

VIRGINIA WATER, England – The long putter saved Ernie Els’ career and helped him win last year’s Open Championship, the South African has admitted. Now he’s ready to complete the Grand Slam and add the Masters and PGA Championship to his U.S. Open and Open Championship titles.

Els lifted his second Open Championship and fourth major at Royal Lytham last year, just a year after suffering agonies on the greens that nearly drove him out of the game. A year earlier Els had little hope at Royal St. George’s. He also performed dismally at the 2011 U.S. Open and PGA Championships.

That’s when he turned to the long putter.

“I missed three cuts in majors – The Open, U.S. Open and PGA in 2011 – and I don’t like doing that,” Els said. “That was purely on the greens. The anchored method was a way out. There was a lot of agony going on.

“I wouldn’t say I was close (to quitting) but it (the thought) probably fluttered through the eardrums.

“So many guys give up. They get to a point where they just say, ‘screw it.’ The despair of it can get to you, so then you go and turn into something else.

“It’s tough trying to explain it to the man on the street because we have a hell of life, but you have to work at it. The disappointments are as brutal as you are going to find because it’s in the public eye. I’ve been exposed, so to speak, with my battle on the greens.”

Els was strongly opposed to the long putter earlier in his career. He ripped compatriot Trevor Immelman back in 2001 when Immelman went to the long putter. Little did Els know he’d one day resort to using a long putter himself.

“I’ve learned a huge lesson saying what I did say back in 2001 with Trevor,” Els admitted. “Watch out what you say in this game. Don’t be too big.”

Wife Liezl has watched the highs of her husband’s career but, like any athlete’s spouse, she’s had to live with the lows too. Watching him suffer on the greens was a real down point.

“It was an absolute last resort,” Liezl said about her husband’s switch to the long putter. “It was something he truly and strongly did not believe in. He never wanted to use that long putter. That was the point where I thought that shows how much he loves the game. He was ready to give it up but he chose to go to the long putter.”

Els is at time in his life when he might be tempted to think of other things, like his wine business or golf course design. While he continues to dabble in such outside activities, he’s still strongly focused on achieving more despite nearly 70 career victories, including those four major wins.

“The only thing left is the grand slam,” Els said. “The Masters would be unbelievable, so would the PGA.”

He says age is no barrier to adding more major titles.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys get to my age when I was younger and I’m thinking, ‘This geezer is done.’ But I’ve seen it with Ray Floyd, with Freddie (Couples), Nick Price. I truly believe that with the equipment, technology and if you look after yourself half decently, you’ve got a hell of chance.”

Els believes experience was key in helping him overhaul Adam Scott to win last year’s Open Championship.

“Adam was right in his prime, ready to win, but there’s a certain tension that creeps in and guys who have been through it know what’s coming. Guys who have not been through it, they don’t see it coming.”

The South African turns up for a third Open at Muirfield looking to add to his trophy cabinet. He finished fifth in the 1992 Open Championship at Muirfield, and survived a four-man playoff to win there 11 years ago. He will hand back the old Claret Jug when he arrives at the course south of Edinburgh, but he doesn’t intend to loosen his grip on it too much.

“Getting the Jug in your hands again, it’s so special.

“I don’t want to give back the Jug. I’m going to give it back to Mr. Dawson, but I’m going to hang on to one ear of it.”

James Braid (1901 and 1912) and Sir Nick Faldo (1987 and 1992) are the only men to have won two Opens at Muirfield, both back-to-back. Don’t be surprised if Els joins that elite club.

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