Big letdown for the Big Easy

There were signs from the start that this might be a year Ernie Els would like to forget.

He stood on the 18th tee at Kapalua in Hawaii with a great chance to win the first tournament of the year and state his case for number one in the world. Els needed only a birdie to tie for the lead, not much to ask on a downhill, downwind par five that he could easily reach with two of his fluid, powerful swings.

But his tee shot caromed off a cart path next to a fairway 70 yards wide and sailed out of bounds.

That’s how his year began. His season ended in far more peculiar fashion.

He was sailing with his family during a holiday in the Mediterranean last week when, according to Els’s doctor, his body twisted in one direction and his foot didn’t go along.
The result was a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that required season-ending surgery.

The recovery is expected to take at least four months. That means Els, who has played the past 50 majors dating to the 1993 United States Open at Baltusrol, will miss the US PGA Championship next week. He also can forget about the Presidents Cup, two World Golf Championships and the Tour Championship.

“Obviously, the timing is unfortunate,” Els said on Monday on his website. “Although let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a good time to get injured. But what can you do? I’m not dwelling on my bad luck. All I have to do now is focus on getting better, so I’m out of action for not a day longer than I have to be.”

On the contrary, this might turn out to be the perfect time for the Big Easy to take a breather.

The 35-year-old South African is at a crossroads in his career.

He is trying to find the balance between global travels that define him as a player, and the need to prepare properly for majors, which define great careers.

His primary residence is London, where his six-year-old daughter goes to school. He keeps a home along the shores of the Indian Ocean in South Africa, and another house in Orlando, Florida.

During one stretch this year, he travelled from China to the US to England to the US in five weeks. He got rid of his private jet in Dallas, placing an order for an upgrade. He switched agents when he got to England. He changed the shafts in his irons when he arrived in Ohio.

This is a man on the move in more ways than one.

“I feel for Ernie,” said Greg Norman, another globe-trotter until he settled in south Florida early in his career. “He knows what he needs. But he’s got to slow down, because this running all around the world has caught up to him. Not his golf game, it’s just his head. It tires you out. It’s just tough.”

Even the congenial Nick Price was critical of Els’s travels, describing his pre-major schedule as “just awful”.

“He’s got to get more focused on those four [majors],” Price said in March. “He’s got Dubai, Qatar, fly eight time zones, play Bay Hill [in Florida]. That’s not going to work. It might work for him, but I’m surprised he’s still doing it. He loves to play overseas. But he’s got the fingers in so many pies, you just don’t know.”

It would be simple to suggest that Els stop chasing appearance money he can get overseas, but there’s no need for him to follow the path of Norman and Price by concentrating on the US PGA Tour.

He has travelled all of his life and feels an obligation to take his game around the world.

It’s hard to argue with his record of three majors, 15 victories in a limited US PGA Tour schedule and more than 40 victories abroad. He has become golf’s greatest global ambassador since Gary Player.

But this unexpected break could come at a good time.

Els is forced to step away from a season that ranked among his worst in the majors. One year after heartbreaking losses in the Masters and British Open, he had only two rounds under par in the three majors he played, and he was a combined 43 shots behind the winners.

The next four months also gives Els time to map out his future.

There is no reason for him to give up his global travels, as long as he devises a reasonable schedule and sticks to it.

In some respects, Els’s season effectively ended in early March when he decided to play the Qatar Masters, adding one more tournament to an already crowded schedule. One person in Els’s camp said it was no trouble going to Qatar “because we were already there”.

But it was another week playing tournament golf, and he had to grind for a comeback victory on the last day. Winning takes a toll.

From there, Els flew to south Florida, then on to the Bay Hill Invitational, The Players Championship and one day at the Tavistock Cup. Small wonder he was sick during the Masters, where the best he could manage was 47th place, a mere 22 shots behind Tiger Woods.

He had a similar schedule last year—minus Qatar—and had a chance to win all four majors.

Els’s nickname leads people to believe he’s the most easygoing player on tour, although nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, he is too hard on himself and presses too much, especially after suffering through so many close calls as he did last year in the majors.

A break like this—certainly not the kind he wanted—might allow him to clear his head, take stock of where he is and where he is going, and come out next year with a clean slate.

Unlike his venture in the Mediterranean, he can only hope for smooth sailing.—Sapa-AP

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