On a Saturday night a couple of weeks back, Ernie Els was sitting at the end of the bar in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Atlanta sipping a Heineken. Not far away a white-gloved man was removing the FedEx Cup trophy from a Tiffany bag, a prize Tiger Woods would claim the following day. Els barely glanced at the Cup. For the man known as the Big Easy, that week's Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club had proven to be anything but.
Earlier that day, Els played alongside Zach Johnson as the Masters champ shot 60. Els could manage only a three-over-par 73. He finished Sunday at level par on a course that was a birdie barrage. "To finish at level par for the tournament is obviously disappointing," Els said on his Web site (ernieels.com). "To be honest with you, there's really not that much to say. It was one of those weeks where I struggled to make much happen. You know, I played some good stuff in parts, but there was just no momentum in my game. Like I said, it was disappointing."
It's a familiar refrain these days. In 2004 Els had a huge season, winning five events. Sure, he didn't win a major but he had a putt on the 72nd hole to win or tie for the lead at three of them. He lost to Phil Mickelson by a shot at the Masters, to Todd Hamilton in a playoff at the British Open, and missed a three-way playoff at the PGA Championship. Then in 2005 he injured his knee on vacation, and nothing has been quite the same since.
He is suffering through a long winless drought on the PGA Tour, and his form rises and falls like the stock market. Sure, earlier this year he won for the 20th time on the European Tour at the South African Airways Open, but he the missed the cut at the Masters for the first time since 1995. He was second at the Verizon Heritage losing only when Boo Weekley chipped in twice on the back nine but finished a disappointing T51st at the US Open at Oakmont Country Club, where he triumphed in 1994. Still, top five finishes at the British Open and PGA Championship were encouraging signs that he might be turning the corner. "I've played two good majors this year," Els said on Sunday after his final round in Tulsa at the PGA. "The way I played today [Els shot 66 in the fourth round] and the way I played at the Open on the final day, that's the way I want to play in major championships."
Els believes that when he breaks through and wins again on PGA Tour, more confidence and success will follow. "Winning becomes almost a habit," he said. "Look at Tiger. I had a couple of years where I won a lot of tournaments, and you start feeling a lot more comfortable on Sundays, so that's what I'm working on."
Els will be 38 on October 17 and is a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. He has homes at Lake Nona in Orlando, Wentworth in England and in his native South Africa, as well as tens of millions of dollars in the bank, a winery, and a safari business. If he has gotten a little complacent, it would be understandable. But Els insists he's thinking long term.
"It's a three-year deal," he said of his plan to regain his place in the golf world. "I knew it's not going to happen overnight. The equipment change and the caddie change; there's been a lot of changes. Some things just take a little bit more time. I just want to still believe that I can become No. 1, and that I can play the way I want to play at the end of the day."
But President's Cup captain Gary Player must be wondering which Els will show up at Royal Montreal? The guy who fought Tiger to a duel in the darkness at the 2003 Presidents Cup, or the guy who couldn't wait to get the hell out of Atlanta?