Ernie Els: Long and difficult journey back to top for 'The Big Easy'

Brian Viner Interviews: 'The injury came at the right time,' says the three-times major winner Ernie Els. Knee surgery in 2005 allowed him to take stock after a series of near misses and realise there is more to life than golf. But, as the Open approaches, the focus is returning
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The Independent Online

About a minute into my conversation with Ernie Els, we are interrupted by one of his management team, who is talking to someone on a mobile phone.

"Silver with black inside, or silver with grey?" he says to Els. "I don't know, I'll leave it up to him," Els replies.

"He says he'll leave it up to you," the man says into his mobile, and laughs. Els is laughing, too. I ask him whether he is buying a new car.

"Yeah, I'm getting a Bentley," he says. "Can you imagine me in a Bentley?" I think I know what he means. Bentleys are grand, solemn, ambassadorial, whereas Els is none of the above. He is Ernest Theodore only by name.

Our interview is taking place on the eve of the Scottish Open in the drawing-room at Rossdhu House, the frightfully smart Loch Lomond Golf Club clubhouse. The room is what you might call neo-baronial, with vast portraits of eminent Scottish Victorians hanging from acres of wooden panelling. It is a room that reeks of formality, yet Els is sitting in a plush corner armchair wearing a polo shirt, shorts and sandals, looking like he's ambled in off the beach. It's no wonder they call him "The Big Easy", and yet the only time a shadow flits across an otherwise cheerful countenance is when I mention his nickname.

"I don't really mind it," he says, years of living in the Surrey stockbroker belt have done little to soften the Transvaal twang. Or rather, the "twing".

"I'm tall, and my swing looks easy, but at times I have lost tournaments by trying too hard, and that's definitely not 'big easy'. I work hard on my game. In some ways I'm a perfectionist. You can ask people in the businesses we have. I want things to run smoothly, there's a little bit of fire in me.

"But the way people look at me, they see me another way. My exterior sends out a message, and that's fine."

Those who know Els well later confirm the truth of what he has said, that the laid-back, affable bloke of popular acclaim can sometimes be hellishly demanding, of others as well as himself. But then, when did a laid-back approach ever propel a man at least to a foothold on the summit of his sport? Interestingly enough, Els shares the same management team as Andrew Flintoff, another man whose achievements belie his reputation as permanently easygoing. Indeed, the two have become friends.

"We've been to a football match together," Els says, "and I was at his benefit dinner. We talk a little bit." And, since neither is known to eschew alcohol, I ask whether they also drink a little bit? More to the point, have they enjoyed a serious bender together? A laugh. "We haven't got stuck into it properly yet, but I'm sure that time will come."

In the meantime, he has a career to consider. By his own elevated standards the former Open (2002) and US Open (1994, 1997) champion has slipped from the summit of his sport into the foothills, to a mere eighth in the current world rankings. His relative decline is largely to do with the five-month lay-off he had following surgery last year to a left knee in such bad shape that the surgeon at first spared him the grim detail. Had there been a chance that he might not play top-level golf again? "I never went there," he says, ambiguously.

In truth, his form had started to dip before the injury, although he was still No 3 in the world. But where major championship golf was once the "Tiger and Ernie show" with a supporting role for Phil Mickelson, it now seems to be the "Tiger and Phil show", with supporting roles for Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen, and Els way down the bill. Is that fair to say? He pushes a huge hand through his mop of floppy blond hair and gives a big, engaging smile.

"Yeah, that's definitely the case. Vijay is still playing good, Retief has had a couple of good runs, and Phil has really come on strong. He's done fantastically well. For me, I guess it was always going to be hard to come back from injury to where I was, although I didn't envisage it would take this long. It frustrates me that I'm not on that level. I need to get back in there as soon as I can, but at times I haven't let myself with trying too hard. You've got to go with the flow sometimes.

"The injury came at the right time, though. In 2004 I won six or seven times but I didn't win a major when I could have won three. In 2005 I played well for a while and then felt the air come out of me. I hadn't let that 2004 season sink in, I hadn't taken the positives out of it. I was fighting myself and the game a little bit, so the injury at least helped me to get away from that, to get away from the game, and to concentrate on more important things like family. I also put some little businesses in place, and changed management, so on that front it was good. But I lost some focus."

Maybe it was a mini mid-life crisis. Els will be 37 in October and it is 22 years since he first announced himself on a global stage, by winning the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego - holding off the challenge of a local kid called Mickelson - in the 13-14 age category. That is a long time trying to live up to expectations, not to mention the difficulties of being almost the best golfer in the world in the age of Tiger Woods, who coincidentally was crowned junior world golf champion in the 9-10 age category in that same illustrious year of 1984.

Anyway, by this time next week, the second day at Hoylake, we will have some idea of whether the focus is back. By most standards, Els has a fantastic record at the Open Championship. Since his joint fifth place in his first Open in 1992, he has never missed the cut, and his 34th place last year, comfortably his worst finish, followed a five-year run of second, third, first, 18th and second.

And so I ask: "How's the swing?" This is a little like asking after Michelangelo's brushstroke, or Gordon Ramsay's saucing technique, in that the Els swing is a source of envy even among other top professionals.

"Well," he says, "there are a couple of moves I'm working on. The last couple of weeks I've been practising really hard. I've been up to Hoylake and I've had [David] Leadbetter, my swing coach, over to look at a few old habits that have come back. I don't quite finish the backswing, and on the way down, instead of the hands releasing the club early, they're holding on. But this is a good time to start working on it. It's the latter part of the season and I haven't done much, so I might as well change it now rather than stick with a bad habit through the year."

Has he had psychological coaching? After all, it sounds as if his slump has had at least as much to do with the head as the hands. "I've spoken to [the sports psychologist] Bob Rotella, and I'll be working with him next week, but on smaller issues. Like I've been struggling with my putting, but rather than working on the actual technical stroke, I've been trying to make the pre-shot routine a little different. Bob's been very helpful with that."

As for Hoylake, Els is complimentary about the venue back in the Open rotation for the first time since 1967. I won a tournament there when I was 18, in 1988, but I hadn't been back since, then I've been twice in the past couple of weeks. It's a wonderfully bunkered golf course; it gives you options but also puts doubts in your mind. It's not a long course, and there are four par-fives, so the scoring opportunities are there, but you've got to be very accurate off the tee, there's so much out there.

"It's hard to figure out whether it will suit the long bashers or the shorter, straighter guys. Whichever it is, they'll have to be aggressive on the scoring holes, that's for sure."

Els admits that as a boy back in South Africa, he was captivated less by the Open than the Masters. "The Masters always had it for me, and it's ironic that I haven't won it, because everyone said that Augusta would suit my game. But I have a good relationship with links courses, too. The shots you have to play, dealing with the wind, that comes quite naturally to me. I've always liked that kind of golf."

His victory in the World Junior Golf Championship suggests that he was a hell of a teenage golfer, and yet I have heard that his older brother was considered the more natural player. Can this be so? And if it is, then why hasn't the world heard of Dirk Els? "He had a great talent, sure. And I give him a lot of credit for my own development, because he was three years older than me. When you're nine and your brother's 12, that's a big difference. I was a small chap, and he always hit the ball a lot longer. He made the game look easy, so playing against him and his friends I had to do other things to compete, like chipping and putting. In that way he helped me without knowing it.

"Later he tried the pro ranks in South Africa but only for a couple of months. He's quite fiery, and in sport you've got to be able to take the bad bounces. Golf didn't make him happy."

He grins. "Not that golfers are all happy people, but he just couldn't handle the bad breaks. He still plays, though, and he's involved with our course design business, where he's doing a wonderful job."

The sons of Neels and Hettie Els, like so many boys growing up in reasonable affluence in Johannesburg, were encouraged to be mad about sport. Disappointingly, though, Els scotches the rumour that he could have made a decent living out of tennis or rugby. "I was a good tennis player, but I was never going to be a world-beater. I could probably have pursued it but I was a better golfer by far."

However, golf is not his sport of choice when he sits down in front of the doubtless expansive television screen at the home near Wentworth golf course that he shares with his wife, Liezl, and their two children. "I would never sit through the duration of a golf tournament, no. But I love watching tennis, cricket, any sport really. I went to the Oval when you guys beat the Aussies. That was wonderful."

At this point the man from his management team returns, having sorted out delivery of the Bentley, to say that our time is nearly up. I have one last question for the Big not-so Easy. Seve Ballesteros once told me that in matchplay especially he sometimes knew on the first tee if he would beat his opponent, just by looking into their eyes. Tom Watson and Paul Azinger were two he cited as immune from the Seve stare, but others crumpled. Els has won six World Matchplay Championships, more than anyone else. So does he, too, declare psychological warfare on the first tee? "The main thing mentally is that you have to be sure of yourself," he says.

"You've got to make sure the other guy thinks you're 100 per cent sure even if you're not. It's to do with body language. I wouldn't say it's a stare. But if you're totally sure of yourself, it rubs off."

And what are his methods for appearing totally sure of himself? A huge laugh. "I don't want to let my secret out," he says.