Ernie Els hopes to recapture the glory
BETHESDA, Md. -- Ernie Els is having a hard time selling it. He talks like a man who thinks he can win the U.S. Open rather than fully believing it, confidence replaced by hope.
By Els' own admission, this has been a terrible year on the golf course, one frustration after another. He was inducted in the World Hall of Fame last month but has played more like the enshrined statue than like the real thing.
All of which makes his return to Congressional Country Club this week for the 111th U.S. Open bittersweet. Els won his second U.S. Open here in 1997, a 27-year-old superstar in the making who would go on to add a third major title five years later at the British Open.
But Els is the first to admit that he didn't expect it to end there, that he's disappointed he hasn't added another Grand Slam title to his résumé, that he "probably could have won more."
A close call at Pebble Beach last year has not helped his disposition. Els was in the mix throughout the final day, but a 2-over-par 73 that included a couple of back-nine stumbles -- he was 4 over par on a three-hole stretch -- led to a tie for third, just two back of winner Graeme McDowell.
It is a setback from which he really hasn't recovered.
"I've thought about that because since that U.S. Open, I haven't done anything," Els said. "Well, I won the South African Open, but other than that, I haven't done anything.
"When I look back at Pebble Beach, I played such wonderful golf from tee to green. I really found my swing that week, and I wasn't even that bad on the greens. That back nine I just kept missing inside 8 feet almost on every hole. And I was really, really very disappointed after that.
"I went to Munich that next week, and I was just as flat as I've ever been in my life.
"I don't know exactly how the brain works, but yeah, that was quite a big disappointment. I really felt that I did play the golf that I wanted to play, that I envisioned to play, and I didn't quite get the result that I wanted. You've got to give credit to Graeme McDowell, the way he played. But from my point of view, I felt like I let one slip away there."
And aside from the aforementioned South African Open late in 2010, there has been very little success since.
Els, 41, seemed to be on the way to a career resurgence last year. He won the WGC event at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational to run his PGA Tour victory total to 18. His win at his country's national championship was his 24th on the European Tour.
But this year, his best finish is a tie for 15th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He has missed two worldwide cuts, including at the Players Championship the week of his Hall of Fame induction. In his past 18 rounds, he has shot in the 60s just once.
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Two weeks ago at the Memorial, Els seemed particularly perturbed as he never sniffed contention and finished 61st.
"You work as hard as he's worked and you don't get anything out of it, it's tough," said Chubby Chandler, Els' agent.
Chandler said Els' work with Els for Autism has been a good thing for him, but it remains difficult to gauge just how much the diagnosis of Els' son with the disorder has affected his golf.
Since winning the Open here in 1997, Els married his then-girlfriend Liezl and the couple had two children, Samantha, who was born in 1999, and Ben, born in 2002.
After winning the British Open at Muirfield in 2002, Els had near misses at all four majors in 2004, losing a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open at Troon. A knee injury suffered in a water accident a year later also did not help.
Unbeknownst to the outside world, the Elses learned that Ben has autism. It wasn't until 2008 that they went public, with Els setting up his foundation, moving from London to Florida and raising millions of dollars for research with a goal of $30 million -- to which Els has already contributed $6 million.
"I wouldn't say it's ideal to have autism touch your life, but it is what it is, and we've got a great boy in Ben," Els said. "He's here this week, and we're dealing with it. We've found that it really helps us to be involved. And we've thrown a lot of our weight into our foundation.
"We're trying to better our lives and other families' lives. It's a tough thing to deal with."
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How it affects his golf is unclear, but it is clear that Els is not making enough putts to be competitive. He is 188th in a new stat that measures putts gained on the field -- he is minus-1.093. That means Els is giving up more than a stroke per round to the field. He is also 188th in total putting.
If there are times when Els wants to break that putter over his knee, he rarely shows it. He is still the Big Easy, with the long stride and that languid swing that is the envy of so many.
"He's got that go-with-the-flow," said British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, a beneficiary of Els' golf foundation in South Africa. "I played with him at Wentworth, and it's amazing how well he hit the ball. He putted beautifully that week. I always expect him to play well. You could be down in the slumps, and the next day you find something and you're up there. So you just keep grinding."
That is what Els said he will do.
"I've almost got to dial it down a bit because my form so far this year has been atrocious," Els said. "I want to change it as soon as possible. Patience -- they say when you get older, it gets better. I don't know.
"That's been part of my problem is trying to change things around and getting back to normalcy. But my sense of urgency is very much there. I'm putting a lot of work into my game. I need to basically find a way of letting it happen and am waiting for that week to happen.
"So maybe this week."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
2011 U.S. OPEN
Course: Congressional CC, Blue Course
Where: Bethesda, Md.
Yardage, par: 7,574 yards, par-71