At 42, Ernie Els knows his best years aren’t necessarily behind him. Kenny Perry won three times at 47 and probably should have won the Masters at 48. Fred Funk peaked with his Players Championship victory at 48 and won the Mayakoba Classic at 50. Then there’s Vijay Singh, the all-time leader with 22 Tour titles after turning 40. And it’s not like Els is that far off.
In 2012 he won twice. Earlier this year he would’ve-could’ve-should’ve won at Tampa (where he tied for fifth) and Bay Hill (T4) if not for some late blunders on the greens. And in April he lost in a playoff in New Orleans. Els is on the cusp of a late-career revival, if he can just sort out the least athletic part of the equation, putting. For a man his age, there is no bigger “if” in the game, and he’s grinding hard to figure it out. Els sat down to discuss his flatstick woes, “reeducating” his eyes, and a first-tee introduction that left him seething.
You must be pleased to see the Open returning to Royal Lytham, where you tied for second in '96 and tied for third in 2001. What most prevented you from winning those events?
In '96 I had a brilliant chance. I was playing really well on Sunday. I was playing with Freddie [Couples], and he made an early move, and then I started moving, until the end. I bogeyed 16 and 18. Back then, I was trying to hit irons off the damn tees to get it in play, the course is so well bunkered. I just pulled it on 16 and went in the bunker, and on 18 I came out of it and went in the bunker. Those were two of my three bogeys. I really felt disappointed. In '01, there were a whole bunch of guys up there. Anybody could have won there. I wasn't as close as I was in '96.
You missed the cut at the Open last year for just the second time since 1992. What happened?
I was just in a slump, man. I was in a bad place in my game, without a lot of confidence. I just didn't play well. I was really disappointed, because I knew the nice record I have there.
You've got 12 top-10 finishes at the Open. What is it about that tournament that agrees with you so much?
I just feel comfortable. I went over there early, in '89 as an amateur [at Royal Troon]. I found it very natural to my game; I see the shots naturally, play the wind nicely. I always feel when I play links golf that I always hit it solidly. You have to hit it solid on a links course.
You've turned your game around in recent months. You beat Luke Donald in the first round of the WGC-Accenture, and finished in the top five at Tampa, Bay Hill and New Orleans.
Yeah, I was nowhere with my game last year, and I went through some emotions. I feel like I'm working on good things. I'm working with a lady — Dr. Sherylle Calder, she's a visual skills coach-who worked with the [South African] rugby team, training the guys' reflexes and stuff. She's got eye exercises that I do, getting me a bit more focused on specifics. So it's coming. We just started. She's in South Africa, but I've got her on the payroll now.
So you work together over the phone?
No, no, she came to Houston, and I've got a computer program. She wrote a program. You have to do certain stuff. She was here for like 10 days and we really worked on the same stuff. We're really working on a routine, so you have the same emotion and routine whether it's a putt on the first hole of the first round, or it's to win the golf tournament.
How does it work exactly?
It's reaction stuff. There will be rugby balls, cricket balls and soccer balls coming up on the screen, and there's a little up-down arrow, so as this happens on the computer, you've got to react. And then there's a number that appears for a split second, and you've got to remember the number and type it in. There's one where there are all types of balls moving around and you've got to follow one ball as it moves and changes. It helps get your eyes focused.
So by doing this, you'll learn to read putts better?
I will. I'm starting to. I'm seeing it differently. You get your body in good shape. I'm trying to get my eyes in good shape.
How did you meet Dr. Calder?
She's been trying to get me for 10 years. I went to watch a rugby game in Ireland, and I gave some of the management a ride back to London in our plane, and she was on our plane explaining it to me. But 10 years ago, s—, I was the best putter in the world. I didn't want to listen [to any advice]. It went full circle. If I had done it 10 years ago, who knows?
You missed a couple of short putts in the last few holes at Bay Hill earlier this year, which prevented you from sneaking into the top 50 in the World Ranking and kept you out of the Masters for the first time since 1993. The next day at the Tavistock Cup, David Feherty, by way of introducing you, joked that you'd be "putting with a live rattlesnake." Was it too soon?
Yeah, absolutely. I've known David a long time, but for him to have said that was totally shocking and — well, not out of character, because he tries to shock the world all the time, but it was a low blow. It wasn't a gentlemanly thing to do. I wouldn't have done that. It made the whole group feel very uncomfortable for the first few holes — it was a very s—-y feeling. It wasn't a very classy move, but then again it's how he makes his living these days. He's kind of a shock jock.
Feherty also said people wondered how you lost with that swing, and that "now we know." Even he sounded surprised at how that one came out.
Those are the things you remember. It's fine. The wheel will turn. I knew he was going to say something. Shock the world, get your two minutes of fame. As an athlete, going through those emotions, it's not the greatest feeling to have, especially when he calls you a friend. At the end of the day I screwed up in front of a lot of people on live television. But I'm still in the game. I didn't quit. I'm still trying to win tournaments and majors, and the people who are criticizing you, their life journey was to [play golf for a living], and now they're a journalist. I shouldn't take it seriously, but you can't help but take it personally. If you're going to take the piss out of me, fine, but don't do it with a microphone in your hand and in front of the whole world.
[In response to Els's comments, Feherty told Golf Magazine: "That was not my intention. I gave everybody a hard time at the Tavistock Cup, and I did it in proportion to how much affection I have for the person. If that backfired with Ernie, I unreservedly apologize, because I love the guy."]
You've looked quite upset as you've signed some recent scorecards. Golf has a way of playing with people's emotions. Tiger Woods took heat for kicking his 9-iron at the Masters. Can you relate?
Yeah. The guy is playing the way he does not want to play. He knows he's playing better than what he's showing at that moment in time. The 9-iron is normally a scoring club, and he misses the shot in the worst area you can in that situation [behind the green at the par-3 16th]. That was disbelief and frustration coming to the boil. It's a huge test internally — some of my [disappointing finishes], you have to explain yourself afterward, and I'm not a very good liar. I'm normally very straightforward and I don't want to be bothered, and that's when that stuff [I regret] comes out of me.
You played with Tiger in the last round of the Honda, when he shot 62. Were you surprised by how he struggled at Augusta?
I was quite surprised. At the Honda he started hitting those shots that he was trying to hit with Hank Haney, when he would either double-cross or just block it. He started at the Honda hitting that power cut off the tee that I'd seen in '99, when he was unbelievable. And I played with him the first two rounds at Bay Hill, and he had his putting worked out. I thought he was back, and he had a week before the Masters to fine-tune everything. He just wasn't there. A lot of people at this club I play at, they had asked me, "Who's your favorite to win the Masters?" I said, "Tiger." Shows you what I know.
Did you watch the tournament on television?
Yeah, I did. I watched over the weekend. I think I would have watched anyway, even if Louis [Oosthuizen, Els's countryman] didn't get into contention. It's part of life, and you want to know what's going on. Maybe it's a blessing.
A blessing? How so?
Maybe I'll miss it more, and play better there in the future. Not playing it for the first time in 18 years, maybe it has an effect where the next time you play there it feels very special again. We'll see. I can't say right now.
After you tied for 12th at the Shell Houston Open, which you needed to win to get to Augusta, you said the powers that be could keep their invitation — that you wouldn't have gone anyway. Is that true?
I don't know about the criteria of inviting someone that's not already qualified. The guys in the press asked me at the Shell if I'd take the invitation if they invited me. I said, "No, not after what we've been through for a month now, trying to get in." I stand by that.
Oosthuizen was in the mix until he lost in a playoff. Given that he once played in your junior program, that had to be gratifying for you to watch.
Louis has been special, him and Charl [Schwartzel]. They're carrying the flag. Retief [Goosen] and I did it for a long time, Gary [Player] and David Frost did it before us, and obviously there was Trevor Immelman in there. Myself and Retief did it for a good 20 years. It's Louis and Charl's time to shine now. It would have been unbelievable if Louis had won and Charl had given him the jacket. Louis was a full member of the foundation; Charl wasn't, he was just traveling with the team. It would have been a real shot in the arm for us, but he's still just an unbelievable player.
You've experienced what it's like to come agonizingly close to winning the Masters. Did you call Louis afterward? I texted him and his caddie, and I got a reply from his caddie, but not from Louis. I had friends who were at Augusta who told me how disappointed he was, so I left him alone.
You left agent Chubby Chandler in September shortly before Rory McIlroy did. Why?
I don't feel that Chubby and them have really good representation over here [in the United States]. He's not as tuned in to the market in the U.S. as he should be. He's based in the U.K., and he's done a good show over there, but with me living over here, I had to go with some people who are more in tune with the U.S. market, Vinny and Buddy [Giles and Marucci, respectively, at ProsInc]. I didn't go straight to them; I was looking at options, looking at maybe doing it myself.
What do you do these days to blow off steam?
We've actually started going out into the ocean, fishing. I went with my daughter, Samantha, the other day, and we got some sailfish. I caught the first one, and then the second one came and she reeled it in. You have all these lines, six or seven lines in the water. They're 50, 60 pounds, these fish, so she was plenty exhausted after that.
In quieter moments, when you reflect on the state of your game, what do you think is most holding you back at the moment?
Absolutely nothing. I had a very tough year last year, and I started working on my putting. It was pretty bad at Tampa, and at Bay Hill that last day. But it's a lot better than it has been. I felt a lot more comfortable in Houston with the putter. As for the rest of it, we love Florida, we have great family and friends around. I'm 43 this year, and I don't have a lot left to prove, except to win two more majors [the Masters and PGA]. I'm just looking forward to playing good golf, and screw the rest.