KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Ernie Els returns to Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship as a major champion, the same status he carried the last time he was there.
He was the U.S. Open winner in 1997, earning his second major at age 27. He came here that fall to represent South Africa in the World Cup. The rest week was a blur. He vaguely remembers the Ocean Course, only that it was hard.
“I think they designed that course for match play,” he said with a grin.
So much has transpired between then and now. That ’97 U.S. Open win came right after 21-year-old Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament by 12 shots. Golf looked like it might have a rivalry to last a generation, only it didn’t pan out that way.
Els was runner-up in three consecutive majors in 2000, two of them to Woods by a combined 23 shots. The Big Easy finally added another major in 2002 at the British Open, and he had a chance to win all of them in 2004 in a most empty season.
Right when it looked as though his best was behind him, or that he had too many demons from so many close calls, he won the British Open last month in a most shocking manner.
Els didn’t realize how fortunate he was until he received DVDs of his win at Royal Lytham & St Annes. He watched the final hour, when Adam Scott made bogey on the last four holes and lost a four-shot lead.
Els flew home to London that night after the Open. Then, he was off to Canada to live up to a sponsor’s obligation.
He missed the cut in Canada, threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, headed to Firestone for a World Golf Championship and didn’t break par until Saturday.
He was all smiles that day, not so much because of his 68, but because of the realization that, yes, he was the Open champion.
“I can’t tell you how special it is,” Els said. “It’s just hit me now. I’ve been reading up on what you guys have been writing, but it’s been two weeks. Last week was a joke. The Canadians ran me around like you can’t believe. But now, I’m breathing again. It’s really setting in.”
The replay he watched carried some bittersweet moments, mainly for Scott.
“I did play some good golf,” said Els, who had 32 on the back nine. “I didn’t make any mistakes on the back nine. But Scotty’s lipout on 16, that thing should have been in. That 17th hole, there’s no way you can hit it left. And the tee shot on 18. I was very fortunate.”
Such is golf, and Els knows it.
Not many would have imagined at the start of the year that Els would go to the PGA Championship as a major champion again. He is 42 and has struggled mightily with his emotions and his putting over the past several years. The low point was not qualifying for the Masters for the first time in nearly two decades.
Darren Clarke, in his 20th time playing the Open last year, won at Royal St. George’s when he was 42, and it appears he has been celebrating ever since.
Els has a different outlook.
“It just shows you, man, you’ve got to keep going,” he said. “Just keep going. You never know. You always have that belief. All the (stuff) that came my way ... are you going to be that lucky again? This game can throw you some bones.”
Imagine the South African walking through the door of his London home, holding that precious claret jug. It was rare for his wife, Leizl, to miss a major. She keeps a book of all his majors, making sketches of each hole and charting every shot of her husband and those playing with him that day.
That she was not at Lytham was not an accident.
His family stayed in Skibo Castle during the Scottish Open, and then Els sent them home. He knew deep down he was getting close, especially after his tie for ninth in the U.S. Open. He wanted to treat the British Open like a work week, as it was when he was just starting his career. He went to the golf course and worked. He went to the hotel to sleep. It was all business.
“Tony Jacklin stayed in that hotel when he won in 1969 – I was born in 1969,” Els said, grinning at the coincidence.
His family will be with him at Kiawah, the final major of the year before the kids are back in school. But he might consider going alone to more majors, because he believes more majors are in his future. There is more purpose than he has had in years.
One night at dinner about a month before the Open, he decided to stop drinking. Els doesn’t remember the night, and when pressed for the motive behind it, he waved his hand and said, “Accch,” a guttural sound in Afrikaans to suggest it was no big deal or not worth discussing.
“I just didn’t feel like anymore,” he said. “I’m probably going to give it another three months now. I feel really into what I’m doing.”
He still put some claret in that silver jug the night he won the Open.
Now, however, it’s back to work.
“I’m feeling like it’s a new beginning,” he said. “Nick Faldo, I had a little chat with him on the range. I really do feel I can win another couple of majors. I really do. He smiles at me, giving me that grin like, ‘Keep dreaming.’ But I believe there are plenty to come. I’m still not close to what I can be.”
Perhaps two more majors, and he will have as many as Faldo.
“I’m not going to rub anybody’s nose in it,” said Els, sounding very much like a man at peace with himself. “I just want to play golf. (Forget) the rest.”
And with that, he turned and walked away.