LYTHAM ST ANNES, ENGLAND l Ernie Els knows, he just does, and you know it, too, in the way a man can stand up and take curveballs that life throws and swing and miss and still get up to swing again no matter how many times they throw that stuff.
No doubt that he knows how you feel, the one he has just beaten, and he knows for certain that the best thing that ever happened to him is the worst thing that has ever happened to you.
He has joy paired with humility in victory, which in this life means that he is blessed with sweat-stained perspective.
Els won the Open Championship on Sunday in one of the worst ways you can win in sport – when the leader stumbles and falls ignominiously in the crucible of the final holes. Granted, Els shot 4-under 32 on the back nine at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and granted, he birdied the last hole to a thundering cheer. But we can’t help but know that the Claret Jug was a gift from Adam Scott, who bogeyed the final four holes to lose his chance at a first major championship.
“I told him that I had been where he is,” Els said Sunday night. “I hoped that he could move on quickly. He’s 32 and he has a chance in the next 10 years to win more major championships than I have now. I hope he doesn’t take it as hard as I did.”
Els now has four majors, the most recent a distant 10 years ago, the Open Championship at Muirfield, where the Open returns next July. He has suffered in that decade – the heavy heart and the questions with no answers of a son with autism and the twisted doubt of a career gone sideways. He has come to terms with his son’s condition and is contributing mightily with time, money and manpower.
And his career, at age 42, hit a place where you had to reach up to touch bottom just this past March, when, holding the lead at the Transitions Championship, he putted on the final two holes looking like a man holding a writhing rattler. He lost the lead and finished one shot out of a four-man playoff and faced an awkward, some say brutish interview with Golf Channel. He didn’t know what to do next.
“I was looking like a fool and people were hitting me pretty low,” Els said. “Some people said I should just hang it up and not play any longer.”
But, inexplicably, his life began to make some sense. He finally could put his family life on one track and his professional life on another. “They were parallel but separate,” he said. He worked on his game, especially his putting, with a fervor that perhaps he’d never experienced. And things started to happen.
Coming into the Open Championship, Els felt his game was as good as it had been in years. At Lytham, he hung around the lead with rounds of 67-70-68, 5-under par. But that was six back of Scott, which was of no matter to Els. He still thought he had a chance.
When he made the turn, he was still six shots back after a bogey at the par-3 ninth. “That got me aggressive,” he said. “I hit a lot of drivers from there in. I wanted to make birdies. I was really in the moment.”
And when he posted 7 under while Scott was struggling on the course, he still believed. He waited on the putting green, the same place he waited for Phil Mickelson to finish the 2004 Masters. Els had posted 8 under and all he could do was leave the moment in Mickelson’s hands. Mickelson made a birdie for 9 under and his first green jacket, leaving Els in the steadfast belief that he had played well enough for the jacket to be his instead.
So he went back to the putting green at Lytham to listen to the crowd one more time. “I thought I’d be disappointed again,” he admitted. “At best, I was hoping for a playoff.”
And when there were groans instead of cheers, he could at last smile and know that the moment was at long last his.
“Last year, I thought I had no chance,” he said. “I was in a pretty big hole. As long as I’ve played this game, 23 years as a professional, you’re bound to have every emotion. Just about everything that can happen to you, I’ve been through.”
And to think it was all premonition. On Saturday evening, Els channeled his inner Crenshaw, sounding his own version of Ryder Cup Captain Ben, who pointed at the media and said, “I’ve got a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell you.”
Said Els, “For some reason I’ve got some belief this week. I feel something special can happen. I feel I’ve put in a lot of work the last couple of – let’s call it the last couple of years, especially the last couple of months. So something good is bound to happen, so hopefully it’s tomorrow.”
That from a man who sees things that only he sees and who knows things we don’t. He just does.