Grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory

At about 6pm last Sunday, after the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek in Malelane, the usual happened. Ernie Els gave a loser’s speech at a time when everyone was expecting him to threaten Tiger Woods.

There was silence at Leopard Creek at 6pm. Even the winning John Bickerton was in shock after having to be hauled from the clubhouse to collect the R1,4-million cheque about 30 minutes after his last hole—and after he had resigned himself to the runner-up spot.
But no, Els, The Big Easy, made the journeyman famous. Now we all know Bickerton.

“Officially, in my book, Ernie Els is a fool,” quipped one supporter and amateur golfer last Sunday when Els repeated his latest habit of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

Els did it previously—at the end of the British Open at Hoylake last year, with only two holes to go to making Woods’s life difficult. Within two shots of Woods, with his second straight birdie at the 14th hole, Els bogeyed the 16th hole. He also missed birdie chances from inside 3m at both the ninth and 11th.

“Still not quite where I want to be, but getting there … I gave it a good shot,” was all he could muster.

Last Sunday at Malelane, with South Africa watching and hoping for a miracle, he missed a six footer, which would have forced a playoff with Bickerton. Els could have won without effort if he had left his vintage self at the clubhouse.

Who can forget the 2004 British Open at the Troon? Els bounced back from a double bogey on the par-four 10th and shot birdies on the 13, 16 and 17. Despite this he failed to seal victory when he narrowly missed his birdie attempt from eight feet—eight feet! He made another journeyman—this time Todd Hamilton—famous with that unlikely victory.

Predictably there came the loser’s speech: “Right now, I’m thinking of the putt on the 72nd hole,” said Els. “That’s the putt I’m going to be thinking about for a while. I had such a good second shot there, you know.”

This—sadly for many of Els’s supporters, who have their hopes pinned on him for one last challenge to Woods’s reign—is probably not the last time we will hear the loser’s speech from a man who should have been popping the bubbly.

With a two-shot lead on the 18th and last hole of the tournament on Sunday, many mature players, after comfortably hitting the middle of the fairway, would not have had any reason or stupid urge to attack the water-guarded green for two. Els did. He made the water twice.

By the time he was putting for double-bogey from six feet, we were all bracing ourselves for a play-off he was not supposed to have played in the first place. He still missed the putt.

Before the Dunhill Els made the perennial promise to launch an attack on Woods’s dominance. Buoyed by his record seventh World Match Play Championship title at Wentworth in October and his display at the Nedbank Challenge in Sun City a week earlier, Els enthusiastically said he thought he had what it takes to challenge the seemingly unassailable lead by Woods.

“I feel I’ve made some improvements. I’ve got new equipment from Callaway and I feel my equipment has come a long way. The swing is pretty sound now. I had some chances in a few Majors. I just need to keep working and improving on my putting, especially under pressure. Tiger has got an edge on me on the greens.

“But I’ve got two years left of my promise. Obviously I’ve got to win tournaments, and big ones, and keep moving up the world rankings.”

At this rate he is not making it difficult for other contenders to win games.

Maybe he should take his focus away from Woods and concentrate on avoiding foolish mistakes. Much like his compatriot, Rory Sabatini, who makes threats on paper then doesn’t even make a show for it, perhaps it is time for Els to bury his obsession with Woods. Every time Els challenges Woods, he chokes.

As Els goes back to the Pearl Valley Estate this week to defend his SAA Open title, he should forget about what happened on the banks of the Crocodile River and try to truly conquer and wipe out the Dunhill memory forever.

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