GOLF: Ernie Els won the 1997 US Open and expected many more majors to follow, but developments in his personal life have perhaps played a role in that not happening, BARRY SVRUGLA reports
THEY WERE, comparatively, kids then and not yet married when Ernie Els wrapped his girlfriend, Liezl, in an embrace 14 years ago after he won the US Open at Congressional Country Club. The group hug included Els’s father, Neels, who thwacked Ernie on the back on Father’s Day, though he missed his mark in the bedlam and ended up slapping Ernie’s mother, Hettie.
No matter. Els was 27, a two-time major champion. His nickname, the Big Easy, fits his style of play, his demeanour, his life. What problems could the future hold? Major championships would come in bundles. Life would bring no bumps.
“If you asked me after my second US Open win at 27, I would have said I would have won probably eight (majors) – at least,” Els said this spring. “And now, with a grand total of three, I would say, yeah, I am a little disappointed I haven’t put another one on my resume. Other players, they would give anything just to win one. I think I probably could’ve won more.”
Els arrived this week at Congressional a bit early for next week’s US Open, and he’ll bring the same seemingly boundless talent and effortless swing he had 14 years ago. He also comes with the knowledge he has 21 top-five finishes in majors, but has converted just three of them into victories: the first US Open at age 24 at Oakmont in 1994, the dramatic victory at Congressional three years later, and the 2002 British Open.
Those accomplishments – or lack of them, in his view – define Els as a golfer. Among active players, only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have won more majors. Even at 41, Els’ circumstances on the course seem no different: same relaxed demeanour, same languid swing, same abundant gifts. So it’s not just Els who wonders: could more have been expected from someone who owns 39 worldwide victories?
“Ernie, sadly, never understood the whole picture,” said Robert Baker, Els’ swing coach when he won at Congressional. “I mean this with the greatest respect, because I love the guy, and I love Ernie Els’ game. But Ernie should have won a lot more majors. As a golfer, he’s had a great career. But did he capture his potential? Not even close.”
Potential, though, can be a damning burden, its fulfilment often complicated. In evaluating a career, how do you factor in the unexpected, off-course development? How do you take one fact – that Ernie and Liezl Els’ second child, Ben, was born with autism – and determine its relationship with how someone hits a golf ball?
“People always ask in the negative way: did it affect you?” Els said. “I’ve said for so long, no. But I would say, deep down, it probably does. I’m sure, in your subconscious, you are a little bit sad, because your boy, he’s not quite normal.”
It took only a day. Samantha, Liezl and Ernie’s daughter, was an easy baby, “a perfect little girl”, Ernie said, “blond hair, blue eyes, just beautiful”.
So eight years ago, when Liezl gave birth to Samantha’s younger brother, Ben, the Elses had a reference point. And within 24 hours, Liezl knew: Ben’s behaviour, his development, did not match Samantha’s.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, autism is a “complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication”. It is called a “spectrum disorder” because symptoms and their severity can vary so widely from person to person.
Autism Speaks, the primary international foundation supporting research of the disorders, estimates that one in every 110 children has autism diagnosed, “making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric Aids combined”.
The Elses’ course, then, was two-fold. First, they had to learn how to raise Ben while simultaneously pay attention to Samantha’s needs.
“When you have kids, you always want to have that bond,” Ernie Els said. “With an autistic child, I would say it’s 1,000 per cent more important to really have that connection. To me, it was very worrying I wasn’t spending enough time at home, because I wanted to make sure – with both my kids, but especially with Ben, because of his condition – I really had that bond with him so when the tough times come, when we have teenagers, we can talk about their problems, and they can come to me.”
There was, too, the matter of how to handle their travails publicly. Their friends on the PGA and European tours knew of Ben’s condition, and they were quietly supportive. Ernie, to that point a private man, was dealing with his boy’s problems, with his own life, but as a public figure, he was in position to bring a focus to autism. It all rattled him.
“Men want to know, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ ” Liezl said. “ ‘How did this happen? How can I prevent it? I’m the boss of this family. How did I let this happen?’ ”
So it was that Els arrived at the 2008 Honda Classic with the logo for Autism Speaks stitched on his golf bag. That week, after months of discussions with Liezl about how to handle it – he began talking about Ben’s condition in the media. And that was the Ernie Els who, eventually, started his own foundation, Els for Autism.
Ernie and Liezl began by raising money with a single golf tournament. They have plans to raise $30 million (€20.5m) – of which Els has already donated $6 million (€4.1m) – for the Els Centre of Excellence, a facility with designs on providing access to education and therapy for autistic children around the world. The foundation has taken off, and this year is staging a massive, 32-site national golf tournament.
For so many who have followed Els, there is no reason to be depressed about golf. Last month, in the middle of his career, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Back in South Africa, he took the place of Gary Player as the icon after whom a generation of kids modelled themselves. He began a golf development programme in his homeland, a programme that produced 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.
Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, another South African, who won the US Masters in April, referred to Els with one word, unsolicited: “Hero”. “You watched every step of what he did,” said Schwartzel, who has stayed at Els’ home during some Florida tournaments. “I just watch what he does, the way he repeats things, and we all know his rhythm.”
There have been so many close calls – the runner-up finishes in the 2000 Masters, US Open and British Open; seconds again at the 2004 Masters and British, the latter in a play-off. Convert a couple of those – or any of the 18 top-fives in majors he didn’t win – and he is indisputably one of the three greatest players of his generation. The most recent close call came in last year’s US Open at Pebble Beach. Els pulled into a tie with leader Graeme McDowell on the front nine before disaster around the turn – a three-hole stretch which he played in four over par – and a slide to third. “That one hurt,” Liezl said.
It hurt, he said, until he got back to his family. In that first moment, in a different kind of group hug, the pain melts away.
“I can’t put it in words how grateful I am to them, especially Ben,” Els said. “He’s taught me so much. He’s so innocent, so straightforward, so pure.
I wish a lot more people could be like that, including me.”
Els’ adventure may not have been the one he envisioned in 1997, when he hugged what was then the extent of his family. But next week, he will be back at Congressional, not just to relive old memories. He arrives trying to simultaneously sort out his game and post one more – as a different man with a vastly different life.
“It’s almost like a full circle,” Els said. “I’m just a different person going back. I’m very grateful, a lot more appreciative of what I have, and maybe a little more grounded.”
© 2011 Washington Post