Crunch time for Ernie Els

Not so long ago, time was his ally.

An hour in Kapalua, 20 minutes on the practice range at Bay Hill -- Ernie Els waltzed through life on a loose schedule and seemed in no hurry to do anything, which made the Big Easy golf's easy-access superstar. Approachable and affable, he sported an insouciance that could border on laughable. After winning the 2002 British Open, Els made the Royal & Ancient wait 15 minutes while he hung out with a small group of U.S. reporters in the Muirfield locker room.

As Archie and Edith Bunker sang, those were the days. The 2002 British remains Els' last major title, his only major-championship triumph in the past 10 years, invoking a sense of urgency from a man who has gone through three agents, two equipment companies and one anterior cruciate ligament since hoisting the Claret Jug. The clock is running, a point not lost on the good folks at International Sports Management, the latest firm to oversee Els' off-course business interests, handle his interview requests and provide all the services befitting a guy with 61 wins worldwide.

You still can get 20 minutes, but it's a lot more structured, strictly by the book. Surely it's a coincidence, but as the organization of Els' career has risen, the frequency of his victories has dropped. Tick, tock.

"If I want to make something happen, I've got three years," he says. "That's what I told myself in a little motivational speech in December. You spend some time away from the top level, then try to get back -- it's almost like being a rookie again."

Three years? Els turns 38 in October, and if most tour pros his age haven't logged as many air miles, emptied as many pint glasses, skipped as many trips to the gym or undergone reconstructive knee surgery, very few own the physique of a grizzly bear or a swing with such economic power. The point? He might not be a young 37, but Els isn't ready for his Champions Tour close-up, either.

"He should have another six or seven years at his peak,"
longtime pal Nick Price says. "A guy that big and strong should be able to play into his late 40s. Little guys who don't hit the ball anywhere don't have that advantage."

Somewhere in their friendship, Els might find a measure of inspiration in Price, who won two majors and reached the No. 1 spot in the World Ranking the year he turned 37. Still, this isn't as much about overcoming the perils of middle age as it is about reclaiming a place among the game's elite, which Els certainly had before tearing his left ACL in the summer of 2005. It's about renovating a career that was starting to move in the wrong direction before he mangled the knee, an injury suffered while Els was vacationing with his family by the Mediterranean.

It's about the long, complex and somewhat deceiving rehabilitation that followed, about dealing with the fact that since Els returned to action in late '05, his only two victories have occurred in his native South Africa. Both were weak-field December events co-sanctioned by the European Tour, which probably would slap its name on your club championship if you let it. There's no such thing as a worthless trophy, but when you have 61 of them, some mean more than others.

Two months into his return, Els already had won in his homeland and lost in a playoff to Tiger Woods in last year's Dubai Desert Classic. By March, however, he was dragging. By May, it's fair to say, he was a wreck.

"I should have been the happiest guy on earth, coming back like I did," Els says. "So I spoke to some guys who had missed a lot of time. Steve Jones, Azinger. Paul's the one who told me I'd be going through some weird [expletive], some weird mental stuff I'd never felt before. I told him I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I do now."

As much as anything, it's about Els making up for a decade of lost opportunity. He won his first U.S. Open at Oakmont on a week memorable for its blazing heat more than anything that happened in the championship -- only the USGA could summon such extreme weather for a tournament that would need 92 holes to determine a winner. The strapping young lad from South Africa survived a bogey/triple-bogey start in the 18-hole playoff to beat Loren Roberts in sudden death.

"A wonderful, wonderful experience," Els says of 1994. "I was young and innocent. I wish I could have the same mind-set as I had back then."

When he won the same title at Congressional three years later, no one could have foreseen Els assuming the role of Woods' lead pigeon, the top-tier player who would become the most affected by Tiger's dominance. In '97, not only had Els outlasted two of the game's toughest customers (Tom Lehman and Colin Montgomerie) down the stretch but he had dispatched an immediate response to Woods' 12-stroke rout at the Masters that April. The components of a rivalry could not have been more obvious. In Els, golf had its serendipitous savior.

Here we are, ahem, 10 years later. Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have done a vast majority of whatever might be classified as rivaling, and when Woods took on swing changes in 2004, both men capitalized to the point that they redefined their legacies. Mickelson won the first of his three majors; Singh unseated Woods atop the World Ranking. For Els, '04 was full of heartbreak despite victories at the Memorial and the WGC-American Express Championship. It was the type of anguish that can take a long time to reconcile.

Mickelson's birdie on the final hole at the Masters hurt bad enough -- Els shot 6-under from the seventh tee on, led by 3 with five holes to play and still lost. Two months later, he was paired with Retief Goosen in the final round at Shinnecock and shot 80, derailing his pursuit of a third U.S. Open crown. But it was the British Open playoff loss to Todd Hamilton that all the sport psychologists in the land will never be able to rationalize.

At the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, three three-putts on Sunday's back nine left Els 1 stroke out of a playoff won by Singh. A man can take only so much.

"All the [frustration of '04] reflected in my play in 2005," he says. "If there was any positive to the [knee] injury, it was the timing. There was definitely a hangover factor in '05. I had a chance to win in Hawaii [at the Mercedes Championships] and hit it out-of-bounds on the last hole. I had a chance to win the first three events and didn't win any. By the British Open, I was sliding."

He hasn't won in the United States in three years -- Els' triumph at the '04 AmEx occurred in Ireland that October. With each passing year of futility, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess his success/failure quotient, and thus determine Els' standing as one of the finest players of his generation. Everyone in the room squirmed when a Greg Norman reference was heard during Els' pre-tournament news conference at Bay Hill in March, but at this point, it's not unfair to declare the two careers as second cousins -- distantly related but still the products of a common ancestor.

"He lost his edge when he took all that time off," Price says. "There's something missing right now, and I think it's patience. He needs to play very intelligent, disciplined golf right now to build his confidence back up. The edge will return, but it can feel like it takes forever."

Nobody spends more time fussing over Els' golf than his longtime swing coach, David Leadbetter.

"I think the injury was bigger than he ever thought," Leadbetter says. "I told him we probably shouldn't keep harping on it, and maybe he's used it as a little bit of a crutch, but this wasn't some arthroscopic process. This was a serious matter that involved torn tendons. No doubt about it, Ernie came back too soon, and that created some issues with his swing that weren't there before."

About four months after tearing his ACL, Els was back on the practice range, although one can only wonder why he felt so compelled to begin his comeback in the middle of November. The PGA Tour season had just ended; perhaps it was his long-standing support of and self-imposed obligation to the South African Tour that had Els hitting balls sooner rather than later.

"I still think I did the right thing coming back early," he says. "If I'd waited longer, this whole process would have taken longer to play itself out."

Eighteen months and two minor league victories later, it's easy to second-guess the decision. Without his left knee operating at full strength or flexibility, Els wasn't able to generate the full body turn that made his swing so graceful. It cost him valuable width on the takeaway and led to an open clubface at the top, which caused Els to get "handsier" on the downswing.

"It resulted in some wayward shots -- definitely more than Ernie had ever hit before," Leadbetter adds.

Els now says he wasn't 100 percent healthy until this past fall. By then, he had done a fine job of grooving those flaws. In 18 PGA Tour starts, he had 11 top-25 finishes but nothing higher than a solo third at the British, 5 strokes behind Woods. He finished fifth on the European Tour money list, largely because of his consistency in the majors and World Golf Championships. Not bad, but not what we've come to expect.

"You saw the way I was swinging," he says with chagrin. "I was all over the place. I've got enough talent that I can get it around, but I want to be better. I want to get back to the form I had in 2004. I mean, 2004 is where I want to be."

Physically and mechanically, of course, but not mentally. After losing to Hamilton by a stroke in a four-hole playoff, Els stomped away from Royal Troon's 18th green angrier than he'd ever been leaving a golf course. For every question that focuses on his left knee, there are reasons to wonder about the scars we can't see.

In his Tuesday practice round at this year's Masters, Els hit the ball harder and straighter than at any time since his surgery. Those in his camp were deliriously happy -- expectations were going through the roof. Two days later, he began the tournament with a double-bogey, then bogeyed the par-5 second and played the first nine holes in 6-over. Els' 78-76 led to his first missed cut at a major since the 1999 PGA -- a stretch of 27 starts.

"Tuesday at Augusta was his best swing in years, but there's a danger when you try to incorporate some technical stuff with Ernie," Leadbetter says. "He does not do well when you try to get technical with him while he's playing. We're working on that, and overall, he's not too far off. The next few weeks are very important. Muirfield Village, which is one of his favorite courses, then back to Oakmont, where he has some very fond memories."

Ah, yes. Those were the days.

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.