Archive for Sunday, June 10, 2007

Oakmont win in ‘94 launched Els’ career

Big Easy’ has won only two majors since breakthrough U.S. Open victory

June 10, 2007

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— There are times when Ernie Els feels blessed to have won three major championships and 60 titles around the world, perhaps none more significant than his playoff victory at Oakmont in the 1994 U.S. Open that effectively launched his career.

Considering a frightening accident, he is lucky even to be playing golf.

Els had finished his first year as a professional when he went out one night in South Africa during the Christmas holidays. His friend was driving home when the car flipped and hit a curb, then slid down the road on its roof.

"My hand was caught between my body and the tar road," Els said. "It scraped my whole hand; it was almost gone. They had to do plastic surgery, and my fingers are still all messed up. So you know, I'm happy to be here."

But there are times when Els feels cursed to return to Oakmont having won only two more majors since that U.S. Open victory.

It was at the end of 1994 when his global travels took him to Thailand for the Johnnie Walker Asian Classic, the first time he met a scrawny kid from California who had won the U.S. Amateur that summer and was in his freshman year at Stanford.

"We were talking on the putting green," Tiger Woods recalled. "He said, 'Why are you going to college? You should turn pro right now."'

If he had a mulligan on that conversation, Els might have tried convincing Woods to go to medical school.

As much as his career is defined by an easy swing that gave Els his nickname, the "Big Easy," perhaps no other active player has been measured against Woods for so long.

No one else has finished second to Woods more often - seven times around the world, three in a playoff. Few other players have reason to wonder how their careers might have been different without Woods.

"I think if he wasn't around, I maybe could have won a couple more," Els said. "That's not taking anything away from the rest of the players. But he's very dominant, and he's been up there more than any other player more consistently. If you win tournaments with him in the field, you've really accomplished something."

Els returns to Oakmont hopeful that a few good vibes could be the spark he needs to get his career back on track.

He is 37 and has set a three-year goal of returning to No. 1 in the world, a spot he hasn't occupied since 1998, when Woods was retooling his swing. Els has expanded his interests outside golf, as most stars have done, designing golf courses and developing a wine label.

His biggest obstacle is recovering from torn ligaments in his left knee while tubing in the Mediterranean two summers ago. Els feels as though his knee fully has healed, but he is getting impatient waiting on the results.

"I'm pushing it a little," Els said. "Instead of taking it for what it is, I'm trying to hit shots I don't normally hit to get back two shots I lost. I'm telling you, this is as good as I can hit it. I'm feeling good."

In some respects, the injury brought a forced break that could not have come at a better time. Els emotionally was devastated from 2004, when he had a chance to win all four majors and came up empty.

Phil Mickelson beat him at the Masters with an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole. He played in the last group of the U.S. Open and shot 80 at Shinnecock Hills. He went head-to-head with Todd Hamilton over the final 40 holes at the British Open, losing in a playoff. And he finished his summer with a three-putt bogey from 100 feet at the PGA Championship to miss a playoff by one shot.

He has won twice in South Africa since knee surgery, but his last U.S. victory was three years ago.

"It's just confidence. That's what it boils down to," Woods said. "He's got to put himself in the mix, and he hasn't done that. He's won overseas, but he hasn't done it here."

Frank Nobilo played with Els in the final round at Oakmont. Nick Faldo and Greg Norman were the top two players in the world, but Els surely seemed on his way to replacing both.

"Ernie had all the tools, and it was pre-Tiger Woods," said Nobilo, who now works for The Golf Channel. "You knew he was going to inherit the No. 1 spot. It was just a matter of time. And in three years, everything was shaken up."

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