Major championships are golf’s most unforgiving coliseums, exposing every weakness and insecurity in order to identify and then celebrate the player most worthy of a victory that both defines and elevates a career. But only on Sunday evening. And only for one player.
For the rest of the competitors, majors usually bring varying degrees of misery, battles against expectations they can’t meet, elements they can’t control or demons they thought vanquished. Especially at the Masters, which began Thursday in Augusta, Georgia.
Ian Woosnam’s struggle this year was clear-cut: At 58, the diminutive 1991 champion is too enfeebled to play a course measuring a daunting 7,435 yards. He shot an opening-round 82, 16 strokes worse than leader Jordan Spieth and just one stroke better than last place, occupied by a 16-year-old amateur from Costa Rica.
Bubba Watson’s battle was against the only thing more unpredictable than the volatile two-time winner himself: the weather. He was close to the lead early, but the blustery winds—assisted by his fickle focus—saw him slump to a 75. His play was poor enough to spur a Twitter spike for the hashtag #PrayForTed, popular among golf fans who follow Watson’s petulant criticism of his caddie Ted Scott with an almost Talmudic devotion.
Then there is Ernie Els, a four-time major winner and one of the finest golfers of his generation. Els wrestled only himself. And he lost.
Els has the putting yips, an affliction so dreaded among golfers that a bout of Ebola seems preferable (Ebola may also have a better cure rate). Yips involve the involuntary movement of the muscles in the wrist, a flinch almost imperceptible to casual observers but often fatal to an athlete’s career. Remember Chuck Knoblauch? The Yankees second baseman was one of baseball’s best fielders until he got the yips throwing to first (drilling both Yankees coach Don Zimmer and TV wag Keith Olbermann’s mother in games). The yips destroyed his career.
Over the past year, Els has several times suffered the indignity of seeing video of his missed short putts go viral. He weathered those humiliations with good humor. You can dismiss such occasional miscues as aberrations. But Thursday at Augusta National was different. We witnessed the bark being stripped from a Hall of Famer, and saw why sports psychology is a booming field.
On the very first green, Els faced a simple 3-footer for par. He took six ugly putts to finish the hole, all but the last attempt missing its target with a painful twitch. Only his last two efforts—both disgusted, one-handed backhanders—even touched the hole. He carded a 9, and his Masters was over after barely 20 minutes.
His fans are wondering if his career is too.
Els fought on gamely and shot 80. Many of his fellow pros would have quickly slammed the trunk after the round, but the big South African faced the media.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. “It’s unexplainable. A lot of people have stopped playing the game, you know? I couldn’t get the putter back. I was standing there. I’ve got a 3-footer. I’ve made thousands of 3-footers and I just can’t take it back.”
A sympathetic reporter asked Els what he would try next. “Maybe a brain transplant,” he replied with a wan smile.
Els has his share of scar tissue in a career notable for some painful losses in major tournaments. But defeats can be rationalized. The enemy within can’t be so readily accounted for.
He knows his options are as limited as his time (the use of a putting motion in which the putter is anchored to the body, long favored by those with yips, was outlawed as of January 1). At 46, he may not have time to resurrect his career, and the potential for more mortification looms beyond the Masters. In June, the U.S. Open returns to Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh, where Els won as a fearless 24-year-old in 1994. Oakmont famously slows its brutally difficult greens for majors. For all of Els’s fond memories of the course, an Oakmont Open must have as much appeal as a stroll to the gallows.
Bobby Jones, the founder of Augusta National, is credited with saying that “golf is a game played on a 5-inch course—the distance between your ears.”
On Sunday, one man will don the green jacket as Masters champion. Of the other 88 men in the field, almost all will leave disappointed losers. A few will focus on the positives of a formative experience of playing in a major on one of golf’s most revered courses. And at least one will leave feeling more uncertain and vulnerable and exposed than he’s been since taking up the game in Johannesburg at age 8. He’ll take with him the hope of millions of golf fans, not a single one of whom can do a damn thing to help him.
Published at Newsweek.com on April 8, 2016.