Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2010

Ernie Makes It Look Easy

Tiger Woods’ announcement that he will return to competition at The Masters means that for casual golf fans the 2010 season won’t even begin for another three weeks. It also means that the Augusta tournament will boast jaw-dropping television ratings.

More dedicated fans of the sport know that in the eleven weeks since the new season actually got underway there have already been plenty of noteworthy moments, both good and bad. There was 27-year old Bill Haas birdieing the final hole to win his first PGA Tour event at the Hope, not knowing that his father Jay was in the gallery watching. Jay Haas, with 23 victories on the PGA and Champions Tour, had flown in on an overnight red-eye flight from Hawaii for the chance to see his son carry on the family business. In a decidedly less feel-good moment, there was Paul Goydos imploding on the 14th hole in the final round at Pebble Beach, tumbling down the leader board and out of contention. And in a reminder that like life, golf bestows upon its participants both heartache and joy, there was Camilo Villegas missing a simple two-footer that would have closed out Paul Casey and sent Villegas into the finals of the Match Play; followed just two weeks later by the same Camilo Villegas rolling in a twenty foot birdie at the last to win the Honda by a very comfortable five strokes.

For me though, the best moment of the young season came last Sunday, when Ernie Els claimed his first PGA Tour title in more than two years with a four shot win at Doral. I’ve always admired The Big Easy’s swing, in large part because the languid motion could lead one to think that he’s putting as much effort into hitting the golf ball as most of us put into tieing our shoes. But the appearance of something so slow and relaxed as to be harmless is of course deceiving. Els has won sixty-one times around the world in a career that has been notable for his willingness to take his game to all corners of the globe. Among those victories are three majors, the 1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens at Oakmont and Congressional and the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield. When he won the second U.S. Open title he became the first foreign player in eighty-seven years to claim multiple victories in America’s national championship.

Yet even with all that success, there is an element of “what might have been” to Els career. Winning three major championships is a feat bested by only twenty-five players in the long history of the game. But in those same tournaments he has also finished second six times, and in the top five on another seven occasions. So but for an errant stroke here or there, or an untimely three-putt or two, a solid record would be supernatural.

Speaking of a supernatural record, the South African has also had the bad timing to play in the Tiger Woods era. Three of Els’ major runner-up finishes came in a row, in the 2000 Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship. However that incredible performance is overshadowed by the fact that in the latter two events the one golfer ahead of him was Woods, who was on his way to winning four majors in a row in 2000 and 2001 (the Tiger slam). Els in fact has finished second to Woods in all tournaments more than any other golfer.

Then in 2005, while vacationing with his family in the Mediterranean, Els was involved in a boating accident and injured his left knee. He was sidelined for months. Although he won his second time out after returning from the injury, the victories in the years since have been sparse, and his play often uninspired. When he turned forty last fall, it was easy to assume that we had seen the last of Els as a dominant player.

But along the way his public statements have made it clear that the one person not giving up on Ernie has been Ernie. And for four days at Doral that self-confidence was clearly justified. With rounds of 68, 66, 70 and a scintillating 66 to close, he beat fellow-countryman Charl Swartzel by four strokes and Paddy Harrington, Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer by seven.

One great tournament does not resurrect a career. But a fan can hope that Els will follow the route taken by Vijay Singh, who has won two-thirds of his thirty-four PGA Tour victories and all three of his major titles after the age of forty.

As golf fans have learned to their sorrow over the past four months, prowess on the greens is one thing, but it is what the pros do off the course that tells us more about their character. Two years ago Els went public with the news that his son Ben, born in 2002, had been diagnosed as autistic. While he and his wife Liezl have of course done everything in their power to seek the best available treatment (a quest which even meant moving from Wentworth, England to Florida); Els has chosen to attack the broader issue. He formed the Els for Autism Foundation in 2009 with the initial goal of raising money to support a non-profit charter school for autistic children. He has now expanded his commitment, and is seeking to raise some $30 million for a research facility and treatment center for the disorder that is estimated to afflict one in every 150 children.

In three weeks time millions will tune in to see Tiger’s return. CBS will no doubt cooperate by showing every one of his swings. If he winds up walking up the hill to the 18th green on Sunday evening as the winner of yet another green jacket, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Even if someone else wins the tournament, they and every other player will be cast in purely supporting roles. But if the sorry tale of yet another narcissistic super-athlete being exposed as anything but a role model teaches anything, it is that there is more to life than winning. The PGA Tour’s marketing slogan is “these guys are good.” Tiger will eventually pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of eighteen major championships. He is already the first billion-dollar athlete in terms of endorsements and winnings. But Ernie Els is proof that for at least some on the Tour, that slogan applies to more than just their golf game.

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