Golfing gods smile again on one of the greats
CADDIES' ROLE:Ernie Els rediscovered his old putting touch for one of the most remarkable comebacks, writes COLIN BYRNE
FORTY TWO isn’t exactly old these days but it is October for most professional golfers if you look at their career as a 12-month cycle. Ernie Els was looking like a giant of the game dwarfed by an indifferent short game in latter years. He changed caddies, management groups, residences and a lot of putters but nothing seemed to reignite the form that came so naturally to him in his hay-day.
Ernie was one of the big five in more ways than one. Given his large and athletic stature he always had a big presence. Still the same size, he didn’t appear to occupy as much space as he did half a decade ago when he used to win global events for fun.
I pulled up alongside him in the car park at the Scottish Open early on the morning of the first round two weeks ago. He was sitting in his car, his ever-present wife beside him in the passenger seat. They waited patiently as his caddie, Rickie Roberts – reinstated as porter for about the fifth time now – arranged his golf bag in the boot of the Range Rover. He didn’t really cut the figure of a force to be feared. The car was surrounded by puddles and pot-holes, not autograph hunters. He looked like someone making up the numbers at a golf tournament, not a real contender.
He didn’t arrive in Inverness airport in his private G-5 airplane but demoted himself to an easyJet standard seat without the much needed extra leg room.
Times, indeed, seemed to have changed for the big South African legend. The trouble was the flat stick. The hole had become smaller as the years progressed for the Big Easy. Of course he still hit the ball as sweetly as ever; how could you not with such a rhythmical and graceful swing combined with inexorable talent?
But Ernie lost his rhythm with the putter. Like with all great putters it is almost impossible to take when you turn into an extremely average one. This is what makes you great, what sets you aside from the herd: you hole putts when it matters, you know it and the rest of the field knows it. Ernie Els was not missing anything makeable, especially when seemingly under immense pressure.
This mantra gradually reversed to Ernie ain’t making anything unless it’s well inside the putter-grip length, especially when under the cosh.
The reality of this for someone who probably never considered living life as anything other than a reliable putter, particularly when most golfer’s sphincters were twitching uncontrollably under perceived pressure, must be impossible to accept.
There are countless good ball strikers who have graced the fairways who rejoiced on the odd week they happened to putt well. That wasn’t E Els. He was royalty with the flat stick, he was the prince, if not the king; it was his birth right to hole putts at the crucial stage of a golf tournament.