Ernie Els has been beaten down the stretch by Vijay Singh, by Retief Goosen, by Phil Mickelson and, of course, by Tiger Woods. Add a new guy to the list: Boo Weekley of Jay, Fla. Ernie has it all, the major titles and the big contracts and the private jet, but on Monday afternoon at gusty Hilton Head, S.C., Weekley had something Els did not: tremendous good luck. On the final two holes Weekley duffed pitch shots for birdie, then holed pitch shots for par. Now he has the tartan coat, the delightfully gaudy wrap the winner of the Verizon Heritage Classic is draped in each year. (Els is still looking for his first one.) Now Weekley has secured a berth in the 2008 Masters, thanks to the reintroduction of the win-and-you're-in rule. (Els hasn't officially qualified yet.) Now Weekley is ninth on the 2007 money list. (Els is 19th.)
Weekley has been involved in the two best tournaments of the year: the Monday finish at the Honda Classic, at which he lost in a four-man playoff to Mark Wilson, and the Monday finish at Hilton Head. The two chip-ins came from a player who looked as if he had shown up for his 7:45 a.m. tee time straight from a duck blind-unshaven, chew in his lip, weathered beyond his 33 years. The whole show was crazy-good drama, with the CBS crew calling the action live on Golf Channel during prime time for weekday soaps. On 18 Els had a six-iron shot from 150 yards, which he needed to hole to tie Weekley at 14 under par. Els missed hitting the flagstick by less than a foot. Poor guy. Not a bit of luck.
The event was all about Ernie, until Weekley did his Craig Perks imitation at the end. But Weekley is a far better player than Perks, who chipped in twice in the finale to win the 2002 Players Championship.
As wild and woolly as Monday was, that's how calm and cool it was on Saturday evening, when Ernie owned the tournament and the practice tee. He was alone except for his new caddie (J.P. Fitzgerald, replacing Ricci Roberts) and his new clubs (Callaways, replacing Titleists).
His swing, though, does not change: the gorgeous rhythm, that big broom-sweep of a move, the closest thing there is today to Sam Snead's classic action circa 1954. With Ernie, agents and psychologists, clubs and confidence all come and go, but his swing endures. Same as it ever was. The Ernie highlight reel is Groundhog Day, Ernie in the Bill Murray role. Here he is winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994. Here's Ernie shooting 80 in the final round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Father's Day 2004, in yet another major that was there for Ernie to pluck. Here he is in early April, when he missed the cut at Augusta, and here he is his next time out, last week, opening with a pair of six-under 65s on the lovely Harbour Town Golf Links. He's always the same, from a distance, anyway. There will be no surprises for us come mid-June, when Ernie returns to Oakmont for the national championship. Whether he wins or contends or misses the cut, he'll do it with that Pacific roller of a swing.
In Saturday's dusk, a dozen or so people were watching him practice. He's the human metronome. A baby was fast asleep.
"Er-NAY!" a man suddenly bellowed, and the trance was broken.
Hilton Head during the week of the tournament is like New Orleans the week of Mardi Gras. Tiger, understandably, is on edge when drunks are around, but Ernie simply laughs, or at least that's what he did on Saturday night. His session ended, and he signed and he talked. Through 54 holes he was at 12 under, tied for second with Kevin Na, each a shot behind the leader, Jerry Kelly.
"This is big," Ernie said, an electronic Heritage leader board behind him.
He has won the U.S. Open twice, the British Open once, contended in so many others. He's won all over the world. He's the only true internationalist in the game today. Hilton Head is a nice Tour stop and not much more. Why would he say big? Whatever the outcome of the 2007 Heritage, Ernie's winding up in St. Augustine, in the Hall of Fame. How did Hilton Head get big?
It was big to Ernie because it showed that his rounds of 78 and 76 at Augusta were produced by some other golfer, the other Ernie, the one who never gets written about in the Monday papers. It's big because he hasn't won on the PGA Tour since October 2004. It's big because he wants to show that he can win with his new clubs, with Fitzgerald, with his surgically repaired knee, with Jos Vanstiphout and Bob Rotella in his head. It's big because he knows the deep truth in something that Tiger always says: You start with baby steps. The order is crawl, walk, run.