In golf there are moments that define a player’s career, then moments that define his character.
Ernie Els has been favored with an abundance of the former. Like the U.S. Open at Oakmont a quarter-century ago, when he emerged as champion after 92 holes, needing extra innings on top of an 18-hole playoff. Or the four-way shootout at Muirfield in ’02, when he claimed the Open Championship. There were a couple other majors, 19 victories in all on the PGA Tour, more than 70 worldwide.
Only Phil Mickelson can challenge Els for the right to be called the second greatest golfer of the last 25 years.
There were major disappointments, too. A handful of nearlys at the Masters, a few at the PGA Championship, a gutting playoff loss to Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon in the ’04 Open. That one hurt. Legends aren’t supposed to lose to guys named Todd who bunt hybrids.
But one moment stands out as the measure of Theodore Ernest Els. It came three years ago at Augusta National, when his Masters ended after about 15 minutes, on the very first hole of the tournament. He six-putted from six feet.
Six. From six feet.
The ghastly spectacle lasted only a few seconds — a flurry of twitches and jabs that were more like spasms than strokes — but that’s all it took to strip the bark from a Hall of Famer.
Els, who carries himself with the amiable menace of a rugby player on a night out, looked shellshocked when he staggered to the second tee.
But he didn’t do what some of his fellow professionals might have. He didn’t reach for his back with a community theater flourish or summon an Uber to the airport. Instead, Els plowed the lonely furrow for another 17 holes. He signed for 80 and returned the following day to shoot 73. It was a gutsy, professional response to humiliation. He had gone to Augusta as a consummate professional, and he left as one.
This week at Pebble Beach is Els’ 27th consecutive U.S. Open, and the second straight he’s played on an exemption from the USGA. He knows there will be no more free passes.
“We will keep looking back to this week, if it’s my last one,” Els said. “It’s just wonderful that they’ve given me that opportunity to play, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Since he has logged just one top-10 finish in more than four years, Els had no cause to anticipate a dream scenario, even on a course where he finished T-2 as Tiger Woods romped in ’00 and third a decade later. “My expectations are pretty low, but the hope is there. I want to have a good week, obviously,” he said a few days ago. “I’ve had some great performances out here. I just want to have a great week in my own way.”
A great week would have meant surviving to the weekend. And maybe beating his nephew. Day one made both goals unlikely. Els’ opening 75 left him outside the projected cut line and five shots adrift of his sister’s kid, Jovan Rebula, who qualified as the winner of the British Amateur.
“My nephew, if he can make the cut, it will be great, give him a lot of confidence,” the uncle said. “It’s a good family bonding at a U.S. Open.”
Rebula is 21 years old and Ernie admitted that the boy now hits it by him. Old lions make easy meals for the young and hungry, and Els knows it’s time to find safe refuge. He turns 50 on October 17 and plans to decamp to the PGA Tour Champions. Winning a U.S. Senior Open could bring him back to the main event some day, but shy of that Friday was his swansong round in a major championship he has won twice.
“I’m looking forward to October, to turn 50. I’ve had a great time out here,” Els said. “And I can be competitive again. That’s why I play the game. I love to compete. When your time is up, your time is up, and you can move on.”
There’s a poignancy to hearing that cheerful resignation from the burly South African, whose graceful power seemed destined to forge one half of a rivalry with Woods. That never happened though. Tiger was too good, and Ernie was too fond of a good time.
Yet Els’ mark on the U.S. Open goes deeper than the engraver’s handiwork and is evident in the number of competitors inspired by him, not all of them South African. “Ernie’s my role model since I’m 10, 12 years old,” Martin Kaymer said before the second round, which he spent in the company of his role model. “Playing with him here at Pebble Beach in maybe his last U.S. Open is a privilege.”
He paused a beat. “Let’s hope it’s not his last round. Let’s hope he plays another three rounds.”
He won’t though. Els shot 73 on Friday to finish six-over-par. He missed the weekend by a handful. He didn’t clip his nephew either. Rebula shot 76 for plus four and will head home too, hopefully armed with lessons from his uncle that go beyond scores, swings and strategies. Like sportsmanship.
There will be future highlights. Els is the International team skipper at the Presidents Cup later this year, going up against Captain Woods. He can play the Open Championship for another 15 years if he wants to. There’ll surely be success on the silver circuit.
His end in the national Open — if this was indeed such — didn’t come on the 18th green Sunday evening, a stage on which he has delivered many memorable performances. The curtain fell on the distant 9th green on a dismal, overcast Friday afternoon in front of just a smattering of spectators.
It was an appropriately gloomy setting for the end of the Els epoch in the U.S. Open.
Golfweek.com, June 14, 2019.