If you get Ernie Els talking about "the brand," he will gladly tell you about the score of 94 that Wine Spectator bequeathed on his eponymous 2005 Bordeaux. He'll tell you he likes President Obama's stance on green energy, no surprise given Els's interest in solar-powered golf carts. He continues to jet around the globe to tend to his course-design business, and he gets a kick out of imagining an admirer of his work 100 years from now trying to recall whether or not Ernie played the game himself. "He was a bit of a chopper," Els says gravely, "but he tried hard." The former No. 1-ranked player in the world cracks up laughing.
Els has just shot a 4-under-par 67 at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera. It could have been better, had it not been for his shoddy work on the greens, a chronic deficiency these days. To open 2009, he tallied a shocking 65 putts over two rounds, atrocious for any touring professional, on his way to missing the cut in Dubai. Things haven't improved much since.
Els does indeed want to be remembered for his golf, but with his descent to 16th in the World Ranking this spring, his legacy was looking more like one of unfulfilled promise: three majors, but none after age 32. His tortured countenance these days on the golf course is no laughing matter.
His era's answer to Gary Player, Els has always been a supremely talented golfer/globetrotter with a perverse talent for keeping numerous balls (and a private jet) in the air while guarding his turf as one of golf's top players. It worked for a while, but then Els became the primary victim of the unholy terror of Tiger Woods circa 2000, pulled a Sergio in the majors in 2004 (four good chances, no Ws), and wrecked his knee while horsing around behind a motorboat in the summer of 2005.
In the middle of it all, he and his wife, Liezl, were coming to grips with the realization that their son Ben, 6, is autistic. "Everything was pretty set for me to do the Grand Slam probably, you know, by now at least," Els says. "Everything was going according to plan, but it shows you can't plan life. You've just got to react."
Els, who will turn 40 in October, has managed just one PGA Tour victory, the 2008 Honda Classic, in four-plus years. Despite publicly committing to regaining the No. 1 ranking he briefly held in 1998, progress has been slow. Which begs the question: Why?
A fellow Tour pro once said of Els that he is so laid back he's "practically horizontal." The comment was, in a way, a reference to both his syrupy swing and the apparent ease with which success came to him: a playoff victory at just 24 years of age over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and another U.S. Open title in '97.
But in truth South Africa's most famous contemporary golfer is not at all laid back. His fury after shooting 80 on Sunday at the '04 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills spoke volumes — the greens were so baked that the USGA had to stop play to water them — and there were other hints that Els wasn't the tail-wagging Labrador retriever he was made out to be. His drive and how he channels it is perhaps partly why he hasn't won a major since '02.
While Tiger Woods's singular dedication is legendary, Els's life is so frenetic he sometimes looks like the inspiration for the BlackBerry. He has homes in Florida, England, the Bahamas and South Africa (two, and he's thinking of building a third in the wine region of Stellenbosch). He is working on a half-dozen design projects, and with his wine and other businesses appears to be modeling his life not after Player but Greg Norman. Els can seem scattered, but when he gets between the ropes he admits he can want it too badly, and burn too hot for his own good.
Then there's his carousing of the 12-ounce variety, sometimes with long-time caddie Ricci Roberts. Els has openly, laughingly talked about their merrymaking for years; boys being boys, and all. But by publicly embracing the image of an occasional bon vivant, he invites scrutiny from, and gossip among, the giant, moveable sewing circle that is the PGA Tour.
At the 2007 Tour Championship, Els, in last place through 54 holes, abandoned what he says is his rule of not drinking during tournaments. With one round remaining in another major-less year, he partied long into Sunday morning in his Ritz-Carlton suite in Atlanta. Els initially seems taken aback when the story is brought up, but then says, laughing, "Oh, s—, that was big. Well, you saw me that Sunday. I was hitting it on the walk, basically. How I shot 69, I don't know."
Els says the tournament was an aberration and does not apologize for having a few pops on Sunday nights, or with his "crew" back in South Africa. "I've slowed down from years before," he says. "I am who I am."
Instead, Els says, his dip in form is a result of a perfect storm of adversity, much of which, by the way, was beyond his control. "Some of these guys in the media center, they've got no idea," Els says. "They say, 'His concentration isn't good enough, he's not hard enough.' Mate, if some of these guys [went] through half of what I've been through, they wouldn't be out here. It wouldn't be close."
On the rare afternoons when Els is home and playing The Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla., he calls wife Liezl as he exits the 10th green. It's the signal for her and their two kids to mobilize from their golf course home for a sort of family picnic on the 12th tee. Liezl and Ben throw a few supplies into a solar-powered golf cart and drive over. Samantha, 10, rides her bike.
If all goes according to plan, Ernie is just walking off the 11th green by the time they get there, and they all enjoy a Norman Rockwell-esque reunion with audio: Ben's excited insistence that dad hit the big dog. "Ben wants Ernie to hit driver all the time," Liezl says. "He loves the sound of the driver. He's obsessed with it. He appreciates a good shot."
Even during Ernie's on-course struggles — the most devastating of which was his playoff loss to Todd Hamilton in the 2004 British Open — and even during his rehabilitation from a torn ACL in 2005, the couple had bigger concerns. Ben seemed different, even at eight months.
"I hear boys are a little bit slower than girls and I thought that was what it was at first," Els says. "But I had a good hunch that something wasn't right. The way he looked at me, the way he reacted wasn't the same as a normal child. He was very glassy; there wasn't much going on."
Els wondered if Ben's difficult birth had anything to do with his autism, a condition that affects 1 in 150 children and impairs verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. Told that such a link was impossible, he and Liezl began the hard work of deciding how to proceed.
They eventually moved from London to south Florida in early 2008 so Ben could receive special schooling. The West Palm Beach area was ideal thanks partly to Dan Marino, the retired Miami Dolphins quarterback whose autistic (now adult) son inspired Marino to raise autism awareness and resources there.
The change would be good for Ernie, as well. No longer would he have to work around England's wet, miserable winters, as he had for most of his career. It was a good thing, too — there was much work to be done.
It is said that we spend 95 percent of our lives trying to get everything just so, and the other 5 percent blowing it all up and starting over. Els appreciates that absent that simple equation, improvement is impossible. After winning the Honda Classic "with mirrors" in March 2008, he made two changes: He went public with Ben's condition (adding an "Autism Speaks" logo to his golf bag the next week), and he replaced longtime swing coach David Leadbetter with Butch Harmon. "I wasn't swinging well," Els says. "I was stuck so far inside, flipping at the bottom. I got the ball around and had chances, but I wasn't the same. Not even close."
The first change bore fruit, providing a forum for Els to unburden himself of what had been a private matter and do some good in the process. "The more you know about it and the more you get into a routine, the easier it is," Liezl says.
The second big change, addressing a famously languid golf swing that was so out of whack it surprised even Harmon, would take sweat equity.
Els also enlisted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, and the two long-time acquaintances began such a close working relationship that Rotella rented a place in West Palm and began regular visits to Els's home. "We watched video of when he won the Open at Oakmont," Rotella says. "More than anything he was like, 'God, I'm so relaxed. I made some good putts, some bad putts, but I didn't care.' His arms were so loose. He'd get up to four- and five-footers and wouldn't even take a practice swing.
"A lot of it is he's just trying to get back to being the Big Easy, and having that indifference," Rotella continues. "Sometimes you get so focused on working hard and getting better that you get worse."
Liezl vigorously disputes the idea that Ernie has spread himself too thin. "He's put in more time over the last three years than he's put in his whole life," she says. "I'm a big believer in hard work being rewarded."
Els is well ready for the reward, a return to the upper echelon. He has picked himself up time and again, but he still looks like he's past his prime. He wants to prove us wrong, to remind us that some golfers peak in their early forties. But that won't happen until his putter behaves for four straight rounds.
Under a warm sun at L.A.'s Riviera, Els is getting tired of waiting. "I never throw the towel in, but f— me, I get so cross, so angry with myself," he says. "I'm going to have a chance to win again, to win the big tournaments again, and that's what I've got to keep focusing on. I can't keep going backward and saying, 'I should have done this and that.' Nobody said it was going to be easy."