A golf celebrity again, Els focused on quest for second straight major title

A golf celebrity again, Els focused on quest for second straight major title

Ernie Els is seeking a fifth career major title this week at Kiawah.
Gregory Shamus / Getty Images

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The most popular guy at every PGA Tour event is the player who won last week. Everyone wants to say congratulations, shake your hand, or have you sign a hat or a flag from last week's venue. After a while, you're signing stuff for pro shops you'll never see and clubs you'll never visit.

Ernie Els, winner of 65  events around the world and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, knows the drill. But a month after his triumph at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, the hand-shakes and good wishes are still coming.

Walking up the stairs of the clubhouse during one of Tuesday's rain delays, swing guru Randy Smith got out of his seat as the South African came near. "Nice going, Ernie, I'm proud of you," he said. Sitting next to Smith, John Rollins also congratulated Els.

At the top of the stairs a locker room attendant smiled. "Congratulations Mr. Els, great playing."

"I think that most of the fanfare is gone," Els told me on Tuesday afternoon. "Especially after the Canadian Open two weeks ago. That was crazy. Then last week was a little better, and now this week I feel like I can really focus on playing and maybe try to get something special done."

If Els considers the reaction he's receiving at Kiawah tame, I wish I could have been north of the border two weeks ago to see what it was like at Hamilton Golf and Country Club.

Walking out of the clubhouse, Tommy Gainey, unrecognizable without his trademark gloves on, stopped Els to congratulate him. Others called Ernie's name from across the bar as he walked through the grillroom.

"Thank you, brother," Els said to Gainey as he shook his hand.

Once again, Els has to be ushered from place to place around the course to avoid fans mobbing him and autograph seekers keeping him from where he needs to be.

Slogging across the soaked turf near the practice green, Els wanted to walk directly through a crowd to get to Callaway's tour van, where he was going to be given a gold putter to commemorate his triumph at the British Open.

"Ernie, uh, how about we just take the stairs and the walkway over the road," suggested one handler as the fans shouted.

"Way to go Ernie!"

"Big Easy!"

"Hey Ernie!"

Inside the confines of the Callaway truck, having been presented with the putter, I talked to Els about the challenge of trying to win at a major after winning the previous one.

He talked about Nick Price winning the Open Championship and PGA Championship in 1994, and Tiger Woods accomplishing the same thing in 2000 and 2006. Els said that the key to winning two in a row is liking the venues .

"I'm lucky, because I really like this [the Ocean Course]," he said. "I put in some good work yesterday, and I'm going to put some more good work in today, but all this other stuff that happens around you, you've just got to try to manage it. In fact, this is the one and only interview I'm giving this week, so you've got something special here."

For Els, winning his fifth major and second in a row would be pretty special too.