Ernie Els made up a six-stroke deficit last year on the final day to capture The Open Championship. It was the fourth major victory for The Big Easy and Els admitted to being “numb,” in the aftermath.
So were we.
Els, of course, burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, winning his first U.S. Open Championship in 1994 at Oakmont, before capturing a second in 1997 at Congressional. The tall South African had a beautiful swing, and an easy going demeanor that made it seem many more majors were to follow.
And although an Open Championship did follow in 2002, it didn’t all work out exactly as planned.
Despite the three major victories, and being regarded as one of the best players in the world, Els became something of an afterthought amidst the emergence of Tiger Woods as the world’s best player in the early 2000s. And let’s face it, Woods’ dominance had an incredible effect on Els, particularly mentally.
Remember, Els has finished second or third in four of the majors Woods won, and often expressed disbelief at Woods’ ability to overwhelm the field. In 2000, Els finished tied for second in both the U.S. and British Opens, far adrift of Woods. Making matters worse, there were numerous other near misses. He also finished second in The Masters that year to Vijay Singh.
More disappointment followed.
In a two-year stretch from 2003-04, Els finished no worse than 18th in the eight majors, six of which he finished in the top six. Els also won six tournaments worldwide in 2004, undoubtedly his best year as a professional.
Yet, he would have no major victories to show for it.
Despite shooting a 67 on the final day at Augusta in 2004, he was unable to hold off a determined Phil Mickelson en route to his first major title. Later that year, he lost a playoff in The Open Championship at Royal Troon to unheralded Todd Hamilton.
Yes, it didn’t matter.
Although Els remained a top-flight player, and was supposedly in the prime years of a golfer’s career (early 30s), major success was becoming elusive. Whether it was Woods, Mickelson, Singh or Todd Hamilton, Els couldn’t break through. And it didn’t help matters that countryman Retief Goosen had emerged as a bona fide world-class player winning both the 2001 and 2004 U.S. Opens.
A July 2005 sailing accident resulted in an injured knee and some time away from the game.
At the start of the 2007 season, Els stated that he was rededicating himself to the game, and had the goal of overtaking Tiger Woods as world No. 1 in three years. In 2008, he would join forces with swing coach Butch Harmon, severing ties with David Leadbetter, whom Els had worked with since 1990.
And while there was the odd success here and there, Els’ struggles continued. He dropped out of the top 50 in the World Golf Rankings in 2011, and did not qualify for the 2012 Masters. Els did record a ninth place finish at the 2012 U.S. Open.
Still, by the time we reached Lytham a year ago, Els was on nobody’s radar. In fact, he wasn’t on anyone’s radar until the second half of the back nine Sunday.
With four holes to play Adam Scott had a four-stroke lead over Els. The Australian would finish with consecutive bogeys, as Els birdied the 18th, and suddenly found himself at 42 years of age, a major champion again.
In the aftermath, Els spoke at length of the difficulties he faced. He admitted he had to entirely retrain his approach to putting, as he had become unable to make putts under pressure.
And while Els is not at his peak level of the early 2000s, he will be a factor this week at The Open. Historically, Els plays very well at The Open Championship, where he has an impressive seven career top three finishes. Also, he won the last Open played at Muirfield Village, and finished tied for fourth in this year’s U.S. Open.
But most of all, Els has broken through the litany of disappointment that defined his game for more than a decade. Last year’s win means he is now tied for 19th on the all-time list with four major victories, with more possible.
And unlike last year, we won’t be surprised if he gets one of them this weekend.