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.
“Winning here would be a start,” Els said on Saturday night, after a sloppy third-round 71 that included “some swings and some mental mistakes that no mini-tour player would ever make.” (If Tiger could talk like Ernie, with Ernie’s candor, he’d seem so much more real. But he’d no longer be Tiger.) “It would help get me in a [mental] place where I can win four or five times a year and, maybe by the end of this year or the start of next, be in position to make a run at Tiger.” In terms of skill alone, if anyone is in a position to do it, it’s Ernie. Ernie’s driving game is more consistent than Mickelson’s, and his pitching-and-chipping game, while less flashy, is nearly as good.
Saturday night, it turned out, was the calm before the storm. On Sunday a fierce wind blew straight off Calibogue Sound and across the 18th green and fairway and the rest of the course. A tree branch fell on a tournament volunteer (he sustained no serious injuries), and walls and roofs of the food tents were flapping so hard you could barely think. One green had a coating of bunker sand on it, looking like a golf course in Vail after a dusting of snow. The flagsticks were bent like Yao Ming in an airliner loo. The birds were staying close to the ground, the boats on moorings were empty, and at 1:10 p.m.-after only two hours of golf, time enough for the first group off 10 to make it through 17-play was suspended. The par-3 17th hole was close to unplayable, and the 18th was worse yet. There was almost no way to keep a ball on the final green.
“It was pretty ridiculous,” said Weekley, an outdoorsman who played one hole on Sunday, describing both the conditions and the stories going around the locker room. Boo hits it low, grew up in the windswept Florida Panhandle and spent years playing golf in windproof rain pants. It takes something to get him to use the word ridiculous.
Mark Hensby, the Australian golfer, was an early starter on Sunday. He hit a 78-yard nine-iron shot into the wind and a downwind seven-iron that went about 200 yards. His group marched through the gale while avoiding the branches that danced across the fairways like hot dog wrappers at a Western Open at Cog Hill.
Kelly worked on his putting because, he said, “we don’t get to practice in 40-mile-per-hour winds that often.” Fresh from Augusta, where he had his first top 10 finish (tie for fifth) in a major championship, Kelly was already thinking about the British Open at Carnoustie in July. And trying to win the Hilton Head tournament.
The 1:10 p.m. suspension of play came with word that a 4 p.m. announcement would reveal whether golf would resume on that day. That left nearly three hours for the caddies and players (and spectators) to do close to nothing. Davis Love III went back to his rental house to watch NASCAR’s Samsung 500 on TV. Kirk Triplett hung out with the caddies in the cart room, underground and out of the wind. There were players wandering through the clubhouse, looking for spots with good cellphone reception. Weather delays yield changes in flight plans, and some guys-most guys, actually-still fly commercial. In the locker room there were dozens of pros watching TV, making phantom swings, eating grilled vegetables, killing time.
Zach Johnson and his caddie, Damon Green, took a steady stream of high fives and handshakes wherever they went. If anybody can remain unchanged by winning a major, it’s Johnson, whose golf last week improved as he caught up on his sleep: 70 to start, 68 in round 2, 66 on Saturday, followed by a Monday 71 for sixth place.
Last week little postscripts to his Masters victory came to light. For instance, at the Sunday-night dinner at the club, only an hour or so after the green-jacket ceremony, Augusta National members toasted the new winner, as they always do, but this year there was a twist. Johnson was given a photo collage, beautifully mounted and wood-framed, of his Masters win, some of the photos barely an hour old. Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, pulled a black cloth off the frame with the words, “Here at Augusta National we work fast,” and presented the artwork to Johnson. The Iowan, who could not have been more patient with reporters and fans last week, was awed by the unexpected gift from the club along with the club coat, the winner’s hardware and the thing that nobody ever talks about-the loot ($1.305 million).
Ernie Els has made all the money he needs. He’ll probably return to Augusta next year looking for his first green jacket. On Monday at Hilton Head, when play resumed at 7:45 a.m., he was looking for something more modest. But on Monday afternoon it was Weekley, who shot a final-round 68, wearing the tartan coat, while Els was jetting off to play in China. Weekley will be playing this week in New Orleans. The tournament was big for Boo, and for Ernie. On Monday afternoon Els felt good about his final-round 70. “I had myself to blame on Saturday,” he said. On Monday he got beat by a guy who pitched in twice for par on the final two holes. Not much you can do about that. “I’ve come close on many occasions like this, in many tournaments,” Els said. “I have to keep knocking on the door. At least today I feel a lot more positive after the round than I did on Saturday. I didn’t win. That’s disappointing. But this is a step in the right direction.”
For his first PGA Tour win Weekley beat one of the best players in the game, and he did it down the stretch on holes that were raw and demanding. But he doesn’t see it in one-on-one terms. “I didn’t just beat Ernie,” the winner said. “I beat 132 people in the field this week. I beat the golf course. That was the whole key, just playing the golf course.”
When you win your first big event, that’s what you do, you beat the golf course, and all the people on it along the way. When you’ve won and lost as much as Ernie Els, you find it gets a little more complicated. You have to beat the golf course, everybody on it-and yourself.