Commentary

For Ernie Els, the eyes have it

Updated: August 7, 2012, 4:51 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- He's got houses on three continents, a plane to fly around the world, a golf swing the envy of all his peers.

There's the wine label, and the golf course design company, and of course, that bust in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
Stuart Franklin/Getty ImagesIt had been a decade since Ernie Els held a major championship trophy aloft. Many thought the Big Easy's major-winning days were behind him when he didn't even qualify for the 2012 Masters. Clearly, they were mistaken.

Ernie Els has been a professional golfer for close to 25 years, and at age 42, life is obviously good. He raises money for autism research, gets paid millions to endorse equipment, and his legacy was certainly secure with three major championship trophies and more than 60 other worldwide wins, well before he captured the Open Championship last month.

So why was the Big Easy anything but earlier this year? Why was the guy who looks like the life of the party acting moody, frustrated while being filled with angst about his putting?

And why did it move him to seek out a unique form of professional help?

"It tells you something about his character, the fact that he was prepared to take on a whole new science and apply it,'' said Dr. Sherylle Calder.

A visualization coach who works for the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, Calder began working with Els in January to "train and improve visualization.'' She met with him for the first time at the Volvo Golf Champions in January -- a tournament he would lose to Branden Grace in a playoff.

"I said, 'Give me six months,'" she said.

Nearly six months to the day, Els was hoisting the Claret Jug, the champion golfer of the year, winner of the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He had some help from Adam Scott, but then again there had been all those times when Els came so close in major championships, a 10-year gap in major wins that most figured would never be closed.

Els knew Calder for nearly a decade because of her work in South African sport, especially with the South African national rugby team known as the Springboks that Els supports. As far back as 2003, Calder began lobbying Els to let her help him with his visualization, his routine, his putting.

"We did briefly talk about it,'' Els said. "Not actually briefly, she really wanted to start working with me because she really felt she could help me. But back then, I was No. 2 or No. 3 in the world and pretty bulletproof. I didn't really think I needed anybody's help.

"It's funny how times change.''

[+] EnlargeSherylle Calder
Touchline Photo/Getty ImagesDr. Sherylle Calder not only works with four-time major champion Ernie Els, but also other professional athletes in various sports.

Els had many heartbreaks in majors. He was just 32 when he captured the Open Championship at Muirfield in 2002, his third major title. But in '04, he had a chance to claim all four majors and won none of them.

Phil Mickelson rallied to beat him at the Masters, and a poor final round -- Els played in the last group with eventual champion Retief Goosen -- doomed him at the U.S. Open. He lost in a playoff to unheralded Todd Hamilton at the Open Championship. And at the PGA, Els 3-putted the last hole and ended up missing a playoff by a stroke.

A 2005 knee injury was a setback, and while Els contended often in majors -- he has a total of 22 top-5s, including his four victories -- he was unable to add to his early total of three wins. And the victories in regular events were fleeting as well. Although Els won twice on the PGA Tour in 2010, he was becoming increasingly frustrated on the greens.

Last year it caused him to experiment with a belly putter -- a club he believes should be illegal. And yet it showed his level of desperation that he would try it.

"For years, I've been watching him,'' said Calder, who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, but has been traveling with Els recently from the Scottish Open to the Open Championship to the Canadian Open to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and again this week at the PGA Championship.

"I knew if he putted better, he'd play better," she said. "It affects your whole demeanor. I'm sure you saw at the British, he was walking upright. He was loving it. That's what we try and achieve by giving him the tools to be able to do it well. You can't just say, 'Get your head up right.' You have to give him the tools.

"My job is really to work on his putting, but it influences a lot of other stuff. That's my mission.''

Calder is part putting coach, part visualization coach, part sports psychologist.

When she is out on tour with Els, she follows him for all 18 holes of every round and then consults with him afterward. They also spend time together prior to every round, and if work is needed, on the putting green later.

"I've got a program that I'm on, that I work on physically with my eyes, then on the golf course and on the putting greens and where I practice,'' Els said. "I've got a much better routine. I didn't have much of a routine. Like in your long game, there's a certain routine that you go through, and we're just going back to basics.''

Calder said the process continues, and that Els still has room for improvement.

"I just said you need to get a routine going, get your focus right, look in the right places and coordinate what you see with what you do with your hands,'' she said. "It was just structuring. He was here and there, mixed up.

"He's a great player, but I just saw what he did. We did a little bit of short game and that's where I saw he is a guy with enormous talent. But he wouldn't have gotten here without a lot of hard work. He's put in hours and hours.''

And that is really the remarkable thing about Els. Does he need to do so at this point? Obviously he wants to, and with a five-year exemption in the other majors -- remember, he didn't qualify for the Masters this year -- there remains an opportunity to pursue more greatness.

"He'll never lose that swing,'' said fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen, who won the 2010 Open at St. Andrews. "He's got too good of rhythm, too good a swing. I don't think people see how much work he puts in. Back home in West Palm whenever I visit, he's always on the range, putting, doing something. He puts so much work into his game. It's great at his age that he still has so much passion for the game. I'm glad for him.''

Els is in the midst of a hectic schedule in which he is playing five straight weeks, starting with the Scottish Open and concluding this week at the PGA. Following a week off, he'll embark on the FedEx Cup playoffs at the Barclays and is then likely to play four tournaments in five weeks.

He is a frequent participant in the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland in early October and has committed to the Frys.com Open on the PGA Tour that month as well.

At some point, he says, he wants to go back to the regular putter.

"I'm thinking by the end of the year or so, we'll see,'' said Els, who joked that if anchoring is banned (the USGA and R&A are studying it), he'll still have a few years to play with the belly putter.

Just the fact that he's talking about it is a good sign. Els doesn't sound like a guy ready to simply enjoy everything he's accomplished, and he is bullish on pushing himself further with Calder's help.

"I don't think I ever doubted her and thank goodness she didn't doubt me,'' Els said. "We were right on track from the first time we actually spent time together. And with all the wobbles that I had through the year and not winning, it obviously hurt, but I really felt this was something I could stick to.

"I felt if I stuck with it, things would only get better, and that's the way it turned out. And we've still got a lot of work to do.''

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com