The Monday Interview: Els keeping cool for the battles ahead

Last year's Open haunted Ernie Els for six months. Andy Farrell spoke to him as he prepared for this year's Championship
Click to follow
Ernie Els walked to his bag, took out his three-wood and left the head cover, a furry animal, on top of the bag. "Is that a lion, Ernie?" someone asked, a hint of mischief in the tone.

"Man, don't start with me," Els replied. "If only we had a kicker. What I say is, nine tries to three. These things turn around."

Els's assessment of the his country's defeat by the British Lions was an unscripted moment during a clinic he gave for Taylor Made, the sponsors he joined at the beginning of the year. He went through the bag, describing how he played each shot.

Els is hardly a born entertainer, but he has an easy manner to which you readily warm. Alongside him was his countryman Retief Goosen. "Jeez, you're quiet tonight, Goose," Els told his silent, shy partner.

It all looks so easy, every shot taking flight with the perfect arc. The setting is the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond and the only thing that can match the beauty of the surroundings is Els's swing, all grace and effortless power. The fundamental mechanics are as sound as in Faldo's swing, but while the Englishman has had to manufacture his action, with remedial work by David Leadbetter, Els's is essentially a gift from the heavens.

When an American journalist visited South Africa a few years ago to report on the "next Gary Player", he found a young black boy at a driving range who could mimic the swings of all the great players. He asked the journalist to spot the difference between his Ernie Els and his Nick Faldo. It took several swings, and it was not until he faced the boy that he realised that when he was doing Els the boy was smiling.

This side of Fred Couples (who is so laid back he makes David Gower appear hyperactive), Els must be the coolest man in golf. Not only does the 27- year-old South African know how to enjoy a beer - he sends out his drinking partner Theo for heavier sessions - but Theodore Ernest Els knows how to stay cool in a crisis.

About the only time that he did not was at last year's Open Championship. Although Lehman went into the final round at Lytham last year with a sizeable lead over Faldo, the American struggled and when Els birdied four out six holes he was one behind with three to play. But at the 16th and 18th he took his three-wood off the tee and was bunkered each time. "I just got a little tentative, started thinking too much about the shots. I was hitting my driver as good as I've ever hit it, and I should have gone with my driver at 16 and 18."

When Els came in for his post-round press conference, he handled the few questions well, but quickly it became obvious that, for him, he was unnaturally angry. "I was crazy, in fact. Yeah, I knew what I did. I knew, if I parred it in, I would probably have won because there was so much pressure on Tom. He was playing with Nick Faldo and he was probably more worried about Nick, and I started to knock on the door, and I knew. I knew I had my shout and then I bogeyed two of the last three. I made two crazy mistakes, especially at 16, an easy hole, and 18 also.

"People say, just go to the next week, but I thought about that tournament for six months. I was really annoyed. I eventually got it out of my mind but it had an effect on my game. But then things like Congressional happen when at the right moment you are thinking positively and right, and you just go ahead and do it. It's a fine line."

At Congressional last month, Els saw Jeff Maggert, Tom Lehman and finally Colin Montgomerie fall away to leave him holding the US Open trophy for the second time. Ultimately, it was his stunning five-iron over the flag at the 17th hole which gave him the edge over the Scot, but Montgomerie felt that his opponent's unflappable nature was his secret. "I was really calm," Els recalled. "I was focused on what I had to do. Other times it might be different, but that Sunday afternoon I just felt very comfortable and felt in control. It's hard to explain, but that's the way it was.

"It is just the way you are. I don't think you should change that. If you lose your temperament a little bit then you should do that. Maybe not break clubs, or swear, but let it out. A lot of times I might take it out on Ricky [Roberts, his caddie]. Hopefully, you have a good caddie who understands. I take it out on him a little bit, or someone else. Hopefully, you have good people around you who can understand it. Nobody is an absolute robot out there. It just goes from person to person."

Roberts' side of it is this: "He has emotions, but he does not show it like Monty would, or a few other guys. He keeps it inside, but he is still going through the same feelings as most other guys would, he just doesn't like to show it so much. He is like any human being. Everyone has a breaking point. I feel for him sometimes because he is trying his best and his game is not quite there. He is trying to win every week and he plays to win.

"When his swing is not quite there, and things aren't going your way, you have to vent your frustrations on someone, and I'm the only one that's there. I'm the punch bag. It goes in one ear and out the other. At the US Open he was so focused and it was the same thing in '94 when he won before. He is like that when he gets into majors. He gets into a zone and tries to stay there. At Congressional, he said: `Just keep telling me to stay positive.' Out of the four guys, he was the one who made the least mistakes."

Els is slightly mystified that he has won two US Opens, although the fact that they are played on long, traditional, tree-lined course similar to those he grew up on in Johannesburg may have something to do with it. Given a choice, he would put himself in the Faldo-Seve Ballesteros bracket, who have been successful at the Open and the US Masters. In fact, although he played one Open as an amateur at Troon in '89 when he missed the cut, his run in the "British" as a pro since 1992 reads: fifth, sixth, 24th, 15th and second.

"I like the whole feel about the British Open," Els explained. "Maybe it's the crowds. The golf courses, definitely. We play the best links golf courses in the world and that probably brings the best out of me. Every day is different, even if the weather is never different, except for last year which was beautiful. The course changes from day to day. You have to have a bit of experience at links golf to win. You can't play target golf. You have to go with the bounces and be very, very patient. You have to take your punishment where it comes and move on."

At Muirfield five years ago, Els had a ringside seat as John Cook suffered the severest punishment when he lost to Faldo. "On the 17th, just before he missed the short little putt, I said to my caddie: `At least, if I've had a poor day, we are going to be playing with the British Open champion'. But as it turned out he missed that short putt, and then at the last he hit a three-iron. I thought he should have hit a four-iron, but he hit a soft three-iron and pushed it and made a bogey. If he had finished birdie- par, he would have won. Then again, you have to win major championships, not wait for someone else to give you them.

"It was quite a feeling I had watching a guy losing it, because that's what he did, lose it. You just hope it doesn't happen to you. You can think the nicest things on the golf course, but when you are just a little negative over a shot or putt, you are not going to execute it correctly. That's what happened to John, and as a golfer I can only hope it doesn't happen to me."

Ernie Els paused for a moment as he pondered what he has just said. "I mean, it has happened to me."

He has scars from Lytham to prove it. But even as Els sets out on a long rivalry with Tiger Woods, don't bet on it happening too often.