Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Els Hath No Fury: An Audience With Golf's Equanimous Everyman

Sports writing is one facet of journalism left largely unscratched by my scribblings. There has been the odd moment though ... a fruitless week chasing Eric Cantona from Bangkok to Pattaya and back in search of an interview that never was, covering a State of Origin match from the 'Pig Pen' of Lang Park in Brisbane, interviewing tennis pin-up Anna Kournikova and on this occasion, travelling to Shenzhen for an audience with the man they call 'The Big Easy'. The story originally appeared in Mission Hills Magazine.

Grey sheets of rain have turned the Mission Hills greens to slate and it’s classic South China spring weather; at once cold and humid. The sort of day that could have a sun-loving South African like Theodore Ernest Els wishing he was back home on the veldt.

    But the Big Easy, true to his nickname, was equanimity personified. With the inclement weather forcing the cancellation of a planned walking tour of his signature Savannah Course, he instead treated members to a sterling display of big hitting at the driving range. “Oops, in the water,’’ he quipped, as another ball almost disappeared from sight, missile-straight, then plopped down at the far end of the sodden range.

    His dry and ready sense of humour and laid-back demeanour make the current world Number Three a crowd favourite where ever he goes, and he quickly endeared himself to both staff and members at Mission Hills. Even after a long day fulfilling numerous commitments around the club during his recent visit to inspect progress on the Savannah Course, he was happy to sit down with Mission Hills Magazine and discuss how 2001 is shaping up so far.

     He placed a creditable sixth at the US Masters - a showing that he was happy with following on the heels of a disastrous preceding month. “I kind of went from mediocre to bad to worse,’’ he says of his pre-Masters slump in form. “Before the Masters, I shot an 81 at Bell South Classic, which is my highest score in three years. I wasn’t even going to play the Bell South, as I’d had a poor run at the Players’ Championship the week before. Before that I was at Bay Hill and I finished 60th, and before that was Miami, where I finished 25th .

    “So I thought I’d go and play in Atlanta the week before the Masters, as I was very uncomfortable with the way I was playing. I thought I’d go there to work on my driving, which was really hurting me a bit, to work on my grip, how to get it back in a neutral position. And I felt I had to do it in tournament play rather than have a week off and stand on the range. It feels great on the range, but tournaments are another thing.
So I was pretty happy that I bounced back at the Masters.’’

    It was a rare blip on a great run of results. Indeed, were it not for a phenomenon named Tiger Woods,  Els’ tally of two US Opens would be bolstered by a string of other majors. Last year alone, he placed second in three majors: the Masters, British Open and US Open. Last year also saw him clinch the US$2 million first prize at the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City, where he edged out Lee Westwood in a play-off. Earlier this year, he placed fourth in the Accenture World Matchplay tournament in Australia and third at the Mercedes Open at Kapalua.

    Then the rot set in. Els is famed for his fluid swing and natural rhythm and it was a rare and worrying moment when they temporarily deserted him. His solution: Keep it simple, stupid. Instead of panicking and turning to a battery of coaches and advisors, Els worked with his dad to get back to fundamentals. “My dad, he’s known my game since I started playing, he knows my basics. We worked together before the Masters and got things back to where they felt good.  When you play badly and do bad things for a while you lose a bit of confidence and that’s what happened.

    “You know, we play such a crazy, funny game. When you're playing well, people kind of leave you alone. Once you make a bad score or have a bad week, and it turns into another bad week, it might only be your putting, or some bad thinking, or your swing, and suddenly everyone wants to tell you what's wrong with your game. It's happened to me, and I've had to stand up and say, hey guys, let me work it out on my own. I think it's a problem nowadays. You can overanalyse. There are a lot of things in this game and a lot has to do with the way you think.’’

      Famed coach and Hall Of Fame inductee Bob Toski once summed this up perfectly, if inelegantly. “Ernie Els? The only thing you can do with Ernie Els is (expletive) him up.’’ Els concurs. “I'll go with what Bob says, you can screw yourself up quickly. I've seen it happen to other players. Sometimes you shouldn't take it all too seriously.’’

     Els says he enjoys the pressure of the big tournaments and he is feeling good about the rest of the year’s challenges. “I regard myself as a player for majors. I enjoy the situation, I enjoy the nervousness, the tension.

You know, I had a lot of opportunities to win golf tournaments last year. I won twice, once on the European tour, once on the American tour and once back home. Three times. So I had a good financial year, put it that way. I didn't win as many times as I wanted to, but as I sit here now in April and look back at last year I've got to be pretty pleased.’’

      The US Open is looming and Els says he’s ready. “It’s in Oklahoma this year. We played a PGA there in 1994 and we played a tour championship there. I think I finished 25th for PGA then the  tour championship I won there. So I've had a good one and a bad one at that place. I hear they've lengthened the course. The greens are very fast. It's going to be very hot too. That course reminds me of courses back home. I know it pretty well and I don't think it suits my game at all. It's a bit of a fiddly course if you know what I mean, you have to fiddle some shots, nine, 10, 12, a lot of thin holes and a lot of dogleg holes. It's a funny course.  I've started working on some shots, to gear game to the course. Your short game is very important, so I'm starting to try to shape shots with my irons.’’

     Els says he’s delighted to be back at Mission Hills. “I remember watching the World Cup on television when it was here in 1995, and then I played here for the first time in 1998 on the Johnny Walker Super Tour. I think it’s great to be involved here, and to watch golf developing in China. A signature course is the kind of thing people can remember you by.

     “What do I think of golf in China? Well, it can only get better. I’ve heard there are a billion people in China, so the only way is up. There are probably 80 to 100 golf courses in the country now. It only takes one man or woman to come out of China, play abroad and hopefully get on the US PGA tour and off you go. Look at what Se Ri Pak did for Korean golf. She really put that country on the map golfing-wise. What’s happening here at Mission Hills should tell you something. There's a lot of enthusiasm going on here for golf, five very good golf courses, facilities unbelievable. You can take it a long way, start producing talent, get a good base, get young players to start playing the game and who knows how far you guys can go here.’’

    With a wife and two-year-old daughter, Els says family life has changed his priorities and helped him focus.  “I really enjoy my life right now. My time spent at golf is a lot more focused than it used to be. I don't spend all day every day at the golf course, but when I do spend time at the golf course I like to work hard and get a little bit more intensity in my workouts. There's definitely some meaning in my life. I'm 31 years old now, I've got a good 10 years ahead of me and like a lot of other players I think there's a little bit more urgency in  my game right now. Having a family definitely hasn't taken anything away, I think it's made me better.’’

     Els has homes in South Africa, Orlando and London, with another planned in the Bahamas. "We split our time where the golf takes us really. My family still travels with me. Little Samantha is only two years old, so it will be a couple of years before she has to go to school and I'll try to take her with me as much as possible. ''

     I feel compelled to mention the "T'' word, and on this subject Els is philosophical. He doesn’t spend sweaty, sleepless nights pondering what could have been in a world without Woods. Nor does he believe  Woods' unprecedented feat of holding all four majors at once is an official grand slam because it's not in a calendar year. "Call it what you may, it's an unbelievable achievement, never been done before. I guess you can call it any kind of slam but it's not the grand slam. But you can't take anything away, it's unbelievable. Phenomenal. It's probably a  Tiger

Slam. Call it that.''

    He says you cannot let Tiger intimidate you, or it's curtains. "There's definitely a lot more pressure from outside when you're playing with Tiger, there's a lot more focus on your group, on your match. One thing you cannot let happen is to get intimidated by who you play with. You go out there and play 18 holes and that's going to take you about four-and-a-half hours. So if you get intimidated or scared on the first tee, then you're going to have problems all day.’’

    It emerges that Els has a friendly rivalry with fellow big-hitter and Mission Hills course designer Vijay Singh. "We play a lot of golf together, myself and Vijay. I've played with him ever since got on the tour in the US, and before that we played together in Europe for a while. So I've known him the best part of nine years now and regard him as a close friend of mine. We play a lot of games together and we have a lot of gambling games going on when we play together. And he's one of the best when it comes to gambling. I've paid so much money to him in gambling debts." So who hits the ball further? The 6'4'', 15 stone gentle giant  chuckles. "When I'm on, I can hit it further than him.''

    But back to Tiger. Can he be stopped, or is he just beginning to write the most incredible chapter in golf's long and colourful history. Els stares out the window for a moment, and when he turns back, there is an unusual intensity in his blue-grey eyes. "I'll tell you one thing man, what can stop Tiger is very good golf. He's still winning but he's not winning by far. He's just scraping through now. With a little bit of luck and hitting the right shots at the right time, guys could have beaten him. It's narrowing down a lot and I think it's closer than most people think. 
   "I want to be ready when the situation comes my way, to grab that situation and run with it. The thing on my side is that I've won majors myself. At certain points in major championships, you have to hit the right shot at the right time. That's what you've got to do.''

    Els is happy to sit back and wait for his chance, as the golf world waxes hyperbolic about the Tiger Slam. He has the tools, the power and the talent to carve out his own place in golf's annals. An Easy Slam, perhaps? "I'd like to win the Grand Slam myself,'' he admits. "I don't know how long it will take, but to win all four majors at least once, that's my goal.''