Ernie Els: The big easy makes his case for the defence

The Open champion tells Kevin Garside how hard it is to win but that he feels in right shape to repeat his Muirfield triumph of 2002 – belly putter or not

It’s never over. You always want more. His fourth major victory at Royal Lytham a year ago was not received like a win bonus at the end of a long career, but an invitation to go again. And so Ernie Els returns to Muirfield next week, scene of his first Open Championship triumph in 2002, thinking as big as he has ever done. His win at the BMW International Open in Munich last month, his first since Lytham, greased the grey matter with reinforced confidence, returning the Big Easy back to himself.

There was a period of readjustment required after his Open triumph, a need to draw breath. The victory in Germany showed his game is in shape. So, too, his mood, as sunny as a garden in bloom when he bowled into Wentworth en route to this week’s Scottish Open. Although he missed the cut at Castle Stuart last night, there was no negative impact. Els accounted for the failure by way of bad bounces and flawed greens.

“It was a good win in Munich,” he said. “I felt good all week,” he said. “At Merion a lot of things came around. Such a great test, you had to have your whole game there, then going to Munich it felt so playable and my game was right there.  I outlasted the guys like I used to back in the day, had chances to pull away but a close one might do me good in the long run.”

The long run starts on Thursday when Els begins the defence of a trophy he appeared to steal rather than win. Adam Scott held a four-shot advantage with four holes to play at Lytham. It was his time, even Els thought that. Just as Rory McIlroy let a four-shot lead go at the Masters in 2011, so Scott graphically unravelled, his knees buckled by a fourth consecutive bogey at the last that handed the crown to Els. Els was sympathetic but points out that a tournament is played over 72 holes, not four. He negotiated the back nine in four under par. That, as much as Scott’s decline, is why he won.

“Last year was one of those highlight reels you rewind to, one of those gifts you feel like came from somewhere else. Getting the jug in your hands again, seeing all the R&A people on the 18th green, standing in front of the crowd and speaking to them. To get the opportunity at 42, you can’t describe it, so special. It’s almost like the game throws you something. I know Scotty helped me but I played the last nine in four under. Some people didn’t think I worked for it, but I did. I had it in the back of my mind what Scotty was going to have to go through; it’s not easy winning.”

This is a point Els makes forcibly. Days glazed in honey are rare. The focus is on the victories, the pictures with the booty, fat cheque, big smile, gorgeous wife or girlfriend. What happens when the music stops, when the putts don’t drop? Els knows well enough.

“It’s a crazy game. My daughter [Sam] wants to go into tennis and I tell her no, you don’t want to go into professional sport. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful in many ways. If I wasn’t a golfer I’d probably be mowing the lawn outside here at Wentworth, but it’s such a sacrifice. It’s hard to explain to the man in the street that you have to work at it.

“The disappointments are brutal, as you will find, because it’s in the public eye. I’ve been exposed, so to speak, with my problems on the greens. If you play it as long as I have, if you’re not touched by every single aspect of the sport, you’re a very lucky man. I’ve been touched by most of it, mentally, physically, in front of millions of people. It’s been a hell of a ride. That’s why so many give it up, why there are so many analysts out there – they have all played the game and all reached a point where they just said ‘screw it’. Mentally and physically, just the despair of it can get to you and you turn to something else. It looks like I will be lucky and that it will be time that will stop me, because I have gone through my little battle. If you’re writing a book, don’t write it at 25, write it at 45.”

When Els puts pen to paper definitively, the chapter entitled “Putting: My Hell” will make dramatic reading since it will explain how at the back end of 2011, he was ready to say “screw it” himself before performing the ultimate volte face and reaching for a device he had vehemently spoken out against, the belly putter. 

“I did get close to ‘screw it’ with putting. There’s nothing like going through agony on the greens [right]. Look at so many great players who stopped playing because of putting: Peter Allis, Johnny Miller, Ben Hogan almost stopped. Thank God for the anchored method. It has saved so many careers. I remember missing three cuts in majors in 2011. I don’t like doing that, and it was purely on the greens. I love this game so much, but to me to go anchored putting was a way out. I was against it – I am with the ruling bodies going forward. I think they feel they should have done it [banned the belly putter]; now they have and it’s probably right, even though tough for people like myself, Adam [Scott], Keegan [Bradley], people who have had success with it.”

Sitting casually at an adjacent table in the Wentworth clubhouse, Els’s wife Liezl, ears suddenly pricking at the mention of the putting issue, motions to speak. Els waves her on. “People don’t realise the agony he went through before going to the long putter,” Liezl said. “People think it was an automatic thing for him to do but it was anything but that. It should have told everyone how badly he was suffering, and how close he got to packing up. It was absolutely a last resort. It showed how much he loved the game, that he wasn’t ready to give it up.”

Indeed. Els is a young 43, his wide smile still framed by hair the colour of hay bales. Perseverance and a long-handled putter have given him an opportunity he thought had gone, the chance to defend the Claret Jug at, of all places, Muirfield.

“People keep talking about youngsters, the Rorys and Rickies, but Tom Watson almost won it at 59 and Greg Norman was right there one year. If you’re on your game it’s unbelievable how the Open crowd can lift you.

“That’s what happened to me. I could just feel the crowd over the back nine willing me to do it, whispering: ‘Come on.’ And so I can see these beautiful stories continuing. That’s just the way the event is. Going back to Muirfield for my third time, some in the field weren’t born the first time I played there. Sir Nick Faldo is playing –  perhaps even he could do something. You never know.

“I was 80-1; he will be 1,000-1, so I might have a pound on him.”

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