AKRON, Ohio – Large in stature, Ernie Els and Sir Nick Faldo are also enormous icons who’ve put their massive hands around golf’s biggest prizes.
So if they’re so alike, why was only one of them chuckling during a chance meeting on the practice range at Firestone Country Club?
Is it because Faldo was once in Els’ spot and realizes how difficult a position that can be?
Or was Els the one not laughing because he has connections to his inner self that Faldo, try as he might, cannot comprehend?
Thirteen years separate them, but their understanding of what it takes to be a major champion ties them together for eternity. Yet that doesn’t prevent them from seeing things slightly different, which was evident during their chat during the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational. Less than two weeks removed from his second triumph in the Open Championship, Els was telling Faldo that he’s rejuvenated and since it had been 10 years since he had earned a major title, he is re-dedicating himself to a couple more big-stage wins.
“I’m feeling like it’s a new beginning,” Els said. “He brought that (topic) up. (But) I really do feel I can win another couple (majors). I really do. He smiled at me, laughing about it. But I feel like I can do it. He gave me the grin (as if to say), ‘Keep dreaming, man.’ ”
Faldo was 38 when he won his sixth and final major, the 1996 Masters which came in an improbable fashion similar to Els’ fourth major and second Claret Jug a few weeks ago. Six behind to start his final round, Faldo was flawless that unforgettable Sunday, Greg Norman was anything but, and the turnaround was epic. Perhaps Els’ win at Royal Lytham & St. Annes won’t be held in the same sort of esteem as is Faldo’s rally, but coming home in 31 to erase Adam Scott’s massive lead has surely gone a long way toward putting him closer to his nickname, “The Big Easy.”
He concedes the name wasn’t really accurate for several years, the heartache of major failures and putting woes having worn him down mentally. “It just shows you, man, you just have to keep going. You’ve seen me, heads off.”
Did he think his time had passed by?
“I wouldn’t want to say I never thought so, because you always have a belief,” Els said. “With all the (bad finishes) that came my way, you wonder if you’re going to be that lucky again.”
Strange, how Els has ridden a roller-coaster of emotions in the majors this year. He was not qualified for the Masters for the first time since 1993 and some pointed to that as an indicator that his time had come. But he played beautifully at the U.S. Open, so well, in fact, that he devised a travel regimen that was unlike anything he had employed in years.
He would go to the Open Championship alone, a rarity given that he travels frequently with wife Liezl and children Samantha and Ben.
“I did that for a reason, too, because I really thought I was getting close after the U.S. Open,” Els said. The family did travel with him to the Scottish Open and they spent a fun week together in a resort, but the next week, they went to London, he went to Lytham and checked into a hotel, the Clifton Arms.
“As much as I love my family and my wife around me, I didn’t have that distraction,” Els said. “I had a little group around me. It was just me, the golf course, hotel, eat, straight (to bed), it was just boom. It was perfect, man. Just play golf.”
Els paid attention to the little things – the fact that Tony Jacklin stayed at the Clifton Arms the year he won the Claret Jug, in 1969, which is the year Els was born; that Jacklin was at the Clifton Arms again this year, and so were Tom Watson and Mark Calcavecchia, Open Championship winners the both of them.
It helped get him totally enveloped in the Open, he said, everything about the way in which the week unfolded put him at ease. He also doesn’t underestimate the impact his decision to forgo drinking had on his performance.
“I felt like (doing it),” Els said. “Just felt like it. I’m probably going to give it another three months. I’m into what I’m doing. I don’t feel like having it now.”
Admittedly exhausted and hardly in a competitive frame of mind for the RBC Canadian Open the week after Lytham, Els felt better and better each day of the Bridgestone Invitational. Finally, by Saturday, though he was en route to an eventual T-45 finish, Els said he was fine.
“It was difficult (after the Open whirlwind), but I’ve got my sea legs back,” Els said. “I’m working on some good stuff.”
As he prepares for his 20th attempt to win the PGA Championship, what’s on his mind are chances that slipped through his hand in 1995 (Riviera) or 2004 (Whistling Straits), but a rekindled fire to win these major championships. He’s one of the few who can say he’s played the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., but Els flashes that priceless smile and lets you know his experience comes with a serious disclaimer.
It was the 1997 World Cup and his presence on behalf of Team South Africa is a blur. “I can’t remember that particular week,” he conceded. “I remember they played the course up (but) it was difficult. Conditions were difficult, then you put pressure on top of it.”
He does remember it from watching the 1991 Ryder Cup and wonders if it isn’t a better design “for match play.”
Still, being in a good place right now, still riding high from the Royal Lytham & St. Annes emotion, Els is taking it one day at a time and not working himself into “The Big Uneasy.”
“We’ll see when we get there,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how they set it up. Last Pete Dye (design) we played was Whistling Straits (2010) and they set it up very fair. They moved tees around. If they do that, they’ll be OK.”
As for him, he’s more than OK.
Laugh if you want, but he’s rejuvenated and on a mission.