Ernie Els: A Pattern of Enduring Excellence at The Open
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When Ernie Els finished tied-fifth at The 121st Open, in only his second appearance at golf’s original Championship, he knew he had achieved a result of great significance.
However, there was no way the South African could have realised he had written the first chapter in a curiously cyclical tale, beginning a theme that would repeat at 10-year intervals during his glorious, trophy-laden career.
This is the story of Els and the respective Open Championships of 1992, 2002 and 2012, three tournaments – each a decade apart – that have had an enormous and lasting impact on one of golf’s most popular players.
Aged 22, Els was a young man tipped for greatness when he arrived at Muirfield in 1992 for a Championship he would describe more than two decades later as “the opening of the door for me to where I’m sitting today”. He soon showed why he was rated so highly.
Despite the fact he had only one previous major appearance to his name, having missed the cut as an amateur in The 118th Open at Royal Troon, Els was among the front-runners all week and performed admirably to finish in a tie for fifth. He also appeared totally at ease with the conditions, in sharp contrast to the struggles many players endure when initially familiarising themselves with coastline golf.
A youthful Els takes on Muirfield in 1992
More than 5,000 miles away from his native Johannesburg, he was already aware the links courses of the United Kingdom represented a golfing environment that suited him like no other.
“I can’t really put my finger on it. I don’t know why I got so comfortable on links courses,” Els said.
“It goes back to watching on television, you know, seeing the way the guys were swinging the club and hitting the shots, seeing the dust fly up. There are no divots flying through the air, just dust and stuff.
“And playing links golf at an early age [probably helped]. The South African Golf Federation at that time used to send players over to the British Isles. I played at the British Amateur and I played the English Amateur and so on, and I played on great courses.
“For some reason, whenever I stepped onto a links land course, and even today, I feel like I hit the ball more solidly than I do on a parkland course. For some unknown reason that’s just stayed with me for my career. It’s just a love of playing on that kind of land.
“I’ve played hundreds of rounds around links courses and I still have that feeling when I walk on the first at St Andrews or Birkdale or whatever,” he added. “I put that tee in the ground and hit my tee shot, my swing just feels different and I feel like I’m really hitting the ball solidly.
“It’s got to have something to do with the turf that we’re playing off and the kind of golf that you have to play. I found it very natural to myself to play punch shots, little cut shots in the wind, or low shots and different kind of shots, so that’s natural to my game.”
Els’ love of coastal courses has endured throughout his career, along with his admiration for the huge crowds that play such a significant role in making The Open so special.
“They love their golf, and when it gets tougher they love it even more because they understand golf in a different way,” he added. “I mean, I know from a South African point of view, if I had to grow up in weather like that I might not have been a golfer.
“Golf courses were designed for the weather in the British Isles and people find enjoyment out of playing in those conditions. Obviously they want to see us as professionals, the best in the world, playing the conditions they play in.
“The little punch shot that runs and gets on the green, they understand the execution of that shot and how difficult that shot can be. In many ways, just the applause from the crowd does a lot for you, rather than the big roar that you hear.”
In sharing fifth at Muirfield with six other players, Els effectively kickstarted his route to a first major triumph.
“That gave me the start that I needed,” he stated. “In many ways it was the start of my international professional career. It enabled me to play the next year’s Open Championship (where he again impressed in finishing tied-sixth at Royal St George's), but it also got me into the U.S. Open of ’93 at Baltusrol. In ’93 I finished seventh, which enabled me to get into the next year’s U.S. Open, which I won.”
Furthermore, 1992 provided Els with invaluable experience of the tense closing stages of a major. The South African played alongside John Cook in the final round, who finished just one shot adrift of the Champion Golfer of the Year, Nick Faldo.
After hitting the front with birdies at 15 and 16, Cook missed a short putt for another gain at 17 and then paid the price for a loose approach to the final hole as he made bogey in an agonising finish to his challenge.
“Even seeing John Cook not quite finishing the job stayed in my mind,” said Els. “It’s still in my mind today, it helped me a lot in my career.
“He was looking so calm, so collected the whole way round. Misreading that little putt (at 17) really shook him I think, because he was steady all day and then he hit a four-iron out of the middle of the fairway right of the green where you couldn’t miss it. Seeing the disappointment in him, giving him his card, and then seeing the emotion out of Faldo, who was the top player at that time. Those are memories that will stick with me for a long time.”
Nick Faldo celebrates his third Open Championship victory
Ten years later, Els would call upon these experiences during an even more dramatic conclusion to an Open Championship. Another year ending in two was about to prove pivotal in his career.
Although Els was a player of huge promise in 1992, his lack of experience meant he was able to enjoy the final round of The 121st Open relatively free of expectation.
It was a very different story when he returned to Muirfield a decade on.
Now at the peak of his powers, Els had followed up his U.S. Open wins of 1994 and 1997 – and a second-placed finish behind Tom Lehman at The 125th Open in 1996 - with a period of outstanding consistency in golf’s biggest events.
He was second in the first three majors of 2000, registered top-six finishes at the Masters and The Open the following year and tied for fifth at Augusta in 2002. Time and time again, Els was threatening to claim another huge prize, only for a third major title to prove elusive.
At The 131st Open, he gave himself a glorious chance of claiming the Claret Jug for the first time. In defying brutal weather conditions to shoot 72 in the third round and open up a two-stroke lead, Els shone on a day when Tiger Woods – seeking a calendar Grand Slam – saw his bid for glory ended by an 81.
Els knew his job was far from done, though, and memories of 1992 soon resurfaced as the tension rose on Sunday.
Els during the final round of The 131st Open in 2002
“I was always kind of relaxed and I knew my game would handle the pressure and so forth. That was the first time I really started feeling kind of (an) anxious feeling in my body,” said Els as he recalled his memories of 2002.
“Me and Liezl, my wife, we were staying at Greywalls, which is right on the golf course at Muirfield. It’s a wonderful place to stay. I had that 3 o’clock tee time on Sunday and my mind went back 10 years to the ’92 one where I was playing the second to last group, but I wasn’t that nervous because I was kind of out of my element. I knew that there were greater players (then), but this time I was leading. I was playing well. I’m the guy expected to win. I’m at the right age to win The Open. All these things.
“I actually went to the range at 9 in the morning. I remember hitting some balls just to get some flow going, just to get my mind away from thinking. I remember the guy standing on the range going, ‘mate, you’ve got five hours until your tee time, what are you doing?’
“Going onto the first I was incredibly nervous, but I felt good about my game.”
If Els was anxious at the start of his final round, having been overtaken by a charging Gary Evans before he had even teed off, he was surely feeling greater pressure a few hours later as one of the most tightly-contested Championships in history neared a conclusion.
After regaining control of the tournament, Els wobbled down the closing stretch. A miraculous up-and-down ensured he did not pay the price for a poor tee shot at the par-three 13th, but he then bogeyed the next hole and double-bogeyed the 16th to cede first place once again. A gutsy birdie at 17 was crucial to keeping his challenge alive and he ultimately made it into a four-way play-off – the first in The Open’s rich history – with Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.
“I kind of felt relieved (to make a play-off), to be honest with you,” said Els, even though he had been in command with five holes to play. “I felt a little bit of anger, but after what I did at 16 and 13 and so on, I kind of felt relieved. I felt a little bit of weight off me, you know, that I didn’t totally blow this thing.”
A miraculous bunker shot at 13 proved crucial on the final day
The affable Levet, who remained joyously upbeat even as the pressure intensified, moved clear of the other three contenders by a solitary shot in the initial four-hole play-off, but the Frenchman then bogeyed the 18th. Both Appleby and Elkington did likewise, as Els made par.
That ensured Els and Levet moved on to sudden death – in another Open first - and it was the South African who finally prevailed courtesy of a par on the 77th hole of the Championship, salvaged with another brilliant sand save.
Even though Els had previously experienced major success, his victory speech on Muirfield’s 18th green underlined the magnitude of this win.
“It was the hardest tournament I’ve ever had to play … and the most rewarding,” he said.
The unique nature of the Championship’s finale also ensured Els was able to sample one of his favourite experiences on three occasions in quick succession.
“The Open has a red carpet on 18 like no other championship in the world,” he explained.
“You have stands both sides. A lot of times you just see the clubhouse in front of you. Other championships, they have the stands in front of the clubhouse, like at Lytham and Muirfield, at (Royal) Troon. A lot of these great old venues, the old clubhouse is standing at the end there and then with all this going on next to you. They can pack in 15,000, 20,000 people (around the 18th) at some of these venues, so you have the red-carpet treatment whether you’re 10 over par or winning the Championship.
“You get applause because you’re an Open contender. You’re playing The Open Championship and people recognise you for that. For me it’s the most special walk of all the Championships I’ve played.”
With the Claret Jug finally secured and his confidence at an all-time high, Els appeared near-certain to claim further majors in the years that followed.
Yet although he frequently mounted strong challenges, particularly at The Open as he suffered defeat to Todd Hamilton in a play-off at Royal Troon in 2004 before recording a further four top-eight finishes in succession between 2006 and 2009, he would not prevail again until he once more contested the Championship in a year ending in two.
Asked what he would have said in 2002 at the prospect of a 10-year wait for another major triumph, Els replied: “I would tell you you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind. I would have said no way. I would have told you I was going to win 10 majors.”
His fourth victory – and second in The Open – was at least worth the wait.
If Els had begun the 2000s looking a sure-fire bet for glory at the highest level, the same could not be said at the start of the following decade. His major appearances in 2010 and 2011 yielded just one top-10 finish and four missed cuts as he struggled badly on the greens.
Needing a solution to his putting woes, he turned to Dr Sherylle Calder, a visual skills coach who has improved the performances of elite athletes in numerous sports.
When the pair first worked together at the start of 2012, Dr Calder made a discovery that was alarming yet strangely heartening for Els.
“She said, ‘go through your normal routine, the way you’ll hit a putt on the golf course’,” Els revealed. “I was so far gone that I didn’t even have a routine anymore.
“We were only hitting six-foot putts. I was hitting a putt on the right edge, or so I thought, and my putter was aiming left of the hole. Later, after we’d got to know each other a little better, she told me that was the worst she’s ever seen. That was quite uplifting for me. Somehow I was pulling through, just making money here and there, but I was technically so bad that she’s never seen anything that bad.
“That kind of gave me a little bit of a boost because I thought, ‘okay, well let’s fix this and we can make something work still’. That’s exactly what happened. We started working on programmes and stuff that I’d never thought I’d do. It took my putting to a different level and made me win a major.
Dr Sherylle Calder works with Els on his putting
“I feel like she saved my career because I could have gone on to do something else, but the love that I had for the game and her support really brought me back,” said Els.
Even after his putting had been transformed by Dr Calder and he had claimed an encouraging ninth-placed finish in the 2012 U.S. Open, Els was not among the favourites for The 141st Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
Nevertheless, his caddie, Ricci Roberts, had a feeling something big was just around the corner for a player ranked 40th in the world.
“Ricci made a little visit to Lytham & St Annes before we went to the Scottish Open … and he told me that he thought that course was right up my alley,” said Els. “I was starting to hit form. I was starting to hit the ball well, starting to get some results again.
“I stayed in the exact same place myself and Liezl stayed in 1996 when I finished second to Tom Lehman. Then in 2001, when David Duval won, we rented a house and I finished third. So my track record at Lytham is pretty good and I’m starting to hit some form. Ricci believes in me again. Things were looking good.”
After 63 holes on England’s north-west coast, Els was prominently placed on the leaderboard but victory looked beyond him. After turning in a two-over 36, the 42-year-old trailed runaway leader Adam Scott by six strokes.
Just as he had done at Muirfield a decade earlier, Els once again found himself casting his mind back 10 years.
“I was not really in the mix but I felt I was because I knew how tough it was going to be for Adam and all these (people trying to be) first-time winners of a major championship, how much anxiety goes in there,” he said. “I was just thinking back to ’02 when I won at Muirfield and blowing it basically.”
With that thought in mind, Els resolved to play the back nine as aggressively as possible in a bid to pile on the pressure. Birdies at the 10th, 12th and 14th swiftly established him as Scott’s closest rival and when the Australian started to falter down the stretch – dropping shots at 15 and 16 after a birdie of his own at 14 – the gap was down to two.
As the prospects of an Els victory improved, crowd support for the Champion Golfer of 2002 reached its peak.
“The whole back nine, when I started making birdies they were just giving me so much support,” he said. “I was playing with Zach Johnson and I remember his caddie came to me on the 18th and his hair was standing up. He said, ‘you know you’re going to win this thing?’ And I said, ‘well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to make birdie on 18’.”
Els was true to his word. A three on the final hole lifted him to within one stroke of the lead and prompted “the loudest roar of my career”.
As the 42-year-old waited, Scott painfully paid the price for a loose approach shot on the 17th and a drive into a fairway bunker at the last, dropping two further strokes to end the tournament on six under.
Only an hour earlier, he had been firmly on course to prevail, but it was Els – 20 years on from his Open breakthrough and a decade after his first victory in the Championship - who instead secured glory.
After offering heartfelt commiserations to a player with whom he had become close friends, Els could once again lift the Claret Jug.
A gracious Els commiserates with Adam Scott
“It’s not the biggest trophy in the world, it’s not the most shining trophy in the world, but it’s definitely the oldest one that we play for and definitely the most special one. This is it. This is where the game started. Everybody that’s everybody ever in the game has got his name on this, so it means a lot,” he explained when reunited with the prize several years on from his triumph at Lytham.
“As you get older you appreciate it more. You appreciate the history of the game more. The second time when I won The Open, I really studied where they started playing and how many years they played it there and when they moved.
“I’ve had discussions with some of the R&A members … the whole history of the tournament takes you through the history of basically the British Isles in many ways, and how and where they’ve played tournaments and the champions they’ve had. You go into the history of each champion, I mean it’s all there. There are so many storylines. I don’t think you can write a book thick enough about the history of what’s taken place. It’s just incredible.”
“Every single name (on the Claret Jug) has got a story, and it’s because of the origin of the event, the importance of the event that’s pulled so many players to play. It’s pulled people across oceans to come and play in a tournament, a golf tournament. Think about it. Then through all these years you get all this built-up history, so it’s quite an amazing event.
“As a player you’ve got to have your whole game. I know that’s a cliché, everybody says that, but you definitely have to have your game. You’re not going to fall into (winning) this tournament, you’re not going to win this by luck.
“Your mental game is probably more important, especially at The Open (more so) than any other tournament. I know we talk about U.S. Opens, they really test you, but The Open changes so much. You have weather conditions that can change like that. You have to adapt your style of play, your approach to the game, your strategy, everything has to be adaptable. You have to be able to adapt to certain situations, certain shots and certain conditions more than any other tournament. It’s a Championship that really tests everything, and most importantly your mental strength.”
Els examines the Claret Jug after his second Open Championship triumph
The Open Championships that have meant the most to Els all took part in distinctly different stages of his career. A rising star in 1992, he was firmly established among the golfing elite 10 years later and then provided a timely reminder of his enduring class in 2012 after being written off in certain quarters.
Given his past performances in years ending in two, it is easy to think he may yet produce something special once again when St Andrews hosts The 150th Open in 2022.