Ten years is a long wait, especially when you’re 42. It seems even longer when you’re a professional golfer. When you’re one of the former elite golfers in the world, it’s a lifetime. That’s how long it has been since Ernie Els’ last major triumph, in 2002.
It was said he was done, that he should hang up his clubs. It’s a good thing Ernie Els wasn’t listening, or maybe he was.
The birdie, courtesy of a beautiful silky putting stroke at the 72nd hole, was the final flourish. It meant he won by a stroke in the British Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes on July 22 to become a four-time major champion.
The overnight leader, Australian Adam Scott, stole most of the headlines, as he let a four-shot lead slip in the final round, with four consecutive bogies in a stunning collapse. Yet it was Els, who had been on the wrong end of a denouement several times before, who was rewarded for a breath-taking performance.
“In March I looked like an absolute fool,” Els said with hesitation in his voice, alluding to a number of tournaments being thrown away from a winning position earlier in the year.
“People were laughing at me and making jokes about me and really hitting me low, saying I’m done and I should hang it up. So to come through and make a putt like that and make pressure putts on the back nine, that was the whole goal. That was the whole thing. Going through all the different feelings and processes… So to sit here with it (he points to the trophy) now is quite satisfying.”
Els, in combination with visual skills and performance coach, Sherylle Calder, turned around his game. He had not won anywhere since the South African Open in December 2010 and many thought he had passed his sell-by date.
Together with Calder, Els completely reworked the way he approached his putting—which had been his Achilles’ heel in his winless streak—to produce a confident and winning stroke. Calder has coached everyone from the All Blacks rugby team to the South African cricket team in improving their hand-eye coordination.
“When you’ve been where I was, you have no confidence in putting, you don’t want to have that one coming back. It comes from retraining your whole outlook on putting. And that’s why I started working with Sherylle, just changed the whole thing, mind-set, training, everything. And I was really going from a totally different angle, which I liked, because I tried everything else.”
Els, since winning that last major a decade ago, learned that his young son, Ben, aged 10, has autism. Digesting that news alone seemed to have an effect on his game and the wins dried up after 2010 as Els entered his 40s.
Els said it wasn’t easy to live up to his nickname—The Big Easy.
“Yeah, well, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? This game is a tough game we play. It’s a physical game. It’s a mental game. You’ve got to have your wits with you, otherwise you have a missing link and it doesn’t quite all come together. So to play the game as long as I have, for 23 years now as a professional, you’re bound to go through every emotion out there and most of the things happen to you.”
The former world-number one believed that his changed attitude was the deciding factor.
“I’ve done what Adam has done before. Just about everything that can happen in the game of golf, I’ve gone through. So to come through all that and sit here and speak to you guys with the Claret Jug is crazy. And it comes from a good attitude, yeah, being a bit more relaxed and believing in yourself.”
Els turns back to his son, and how he thought of him during the final round to help him achieve the win.
“I made a lot of putts with Ben in mind today, because I know Ben’s watching. He loves when I hit golf balls. He’s always there. He comes with me. He loves the flight of the ball and the sound. I know he was watching today, and I was trying to keep him—because he gets really excited. I wanted to keep him excited today, so I made a lot of putts for him today.”
Els admitted he has lost more often in his career than he has won, but that he could always feel the difference all was well…
“It’s amazing this game, you know. You have a positive feel; you give yourself positive vibes, sometimes positive things happen. And I think I’ve been in such a negative mode for a while, and now that I’m starting to feel more positive, obviously things happen, especially on the back nine where I haven’t really done the job.”
Els also explained how he felt he had to thank former President Nelson Mandela for the encouragement he had given him during his career—especially the early parts of the 1990s.
“If I win, I told myself, I’d better thank President Mandela because I grew up in the era of apartheid and then changing into the democratic era, and President Mandela was right there. And right after the change, I was the first one to win a major.”
“And so there’s a lot of significance there in my life, from the change from that and then President Mandela becoming president and me winning a golf tournament. And then him getting on the telephone with him talking to me when I was in Pittsburgh, Oakmont [the 1994 US Open]. So in a way we intertwined together in a crazy way. And I just felt he’s been so important for us being where we are today as a nation and as sports people.”
Els has now come full-circle, from promising major-winning talent, to the also ran, to the comeback kid. The Big Easy is back and ready to win again.