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Els: 'You can only take so much'

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

Some guys never recover. On the short walk between the 16th green and the 17th tee at Muirfield on Sunday, Ernie Els asked himself whether he was one of them. The sharp sting of a double-bogey 5 had just dropped him from the lead at the British Open into a pack of also-rans.

''Walking off 16, I was like, 'Is this the way you want to be remembered? By screwing up in an Open championship?' That wasn't one of my finer moments,'' he said.

This time the story has a happy ending. The claret jug was safely tucked away as Els spoke in the fading light of a Scottish summer evening.

A half-hour earlier, he beat back a challenge from little-known Frenchman Thomas Levet on the first hole of sudden death to claim the major title Els most wanted to win. But the dominant emotion spread across Els' face was relief, not joy.

''You can only take so much,'' he said.

''People have lost here before and some people just never recovered. I don't know if I would have been one of them, but I would have been a different person.

''Now I am, but in a better and good way. I'm back on track. I can now legitimately try and win the majors, all four majors,'' he said.

Imagine being just 32, still dripping with talent, and wondering whether the best days of your career are already behind you. Els does it all the time.

It's bad enough that he's in the same line of work as Tiger Woods. Els has made it tougher still by inventing a little demon who sits on his shoulder and fills his ears with negative thoughts. With Woods out of the picture for once and Els on cruise-control, the little guy started working overtime.

''I had a couple of chances to break away and the little guy just kept on. Every time I wanted to do that, I made a mistake,'' Els said. ''Even on the last playoff hole, I got him back again. So it was difficult. But I'm proud of myself for getting this one.''

It sounds strange -- almost silly, in fact -- for a man who had won two majors by age 27 to be talking about imaginary demons and suffering through one crisis of confidence after another. Especially one with a swing as sweet as Els' and a temperament to match.

Nicknamed ''The Big Easy'' because of those qualities, Els won the first of his two U.S. Opens at age 24 and was dubbed the latest ''next Nicklaus'' in a long line of potential successors. But not much came easy after that.

And not long after Els won his second U.S. Open at Congressional, Woods zoomed past him and became even more dominant than Jack Nicklaus at the height of his considerable powers. It forced Els and a host of Woods' challengers to lift weights, down protein shakes and consult sports psychologists. Els did all those things and still found himself wanting.

It was a scary feeling, the same one he had walking off the 16th green after pulling his 7-iron tee shot, scuffing a chip shot, blasting another past the hole and suddenly bringing a handful of lesser talents back into contention. All that hard work was about to go down the drain.

''All of a sudden,'' Els said, "17 is the most crucial hole of the tournament and every shot the rest of the way was going to be a crucial shot. I was under a lot of pressure there. I never felt anything like that.''

Els responded with a birdie and a workmanlike par at 18 to set up the first four-way playoff in the history of the British Open. TV analysts and some members of the gallery didn't like the idea of splitting the golfers into twosomes, but Els was grateful.

He needed sustenance, but more than what was provided by the sandwich and juice he downed in a hurry.

''I tried my best to birdie the 72nd hole because I felt I wasn't good in playoffs,'' said Els, who is 2-2 for his career. ''I was pretty much down in the dumps.''

His caddie, Ricci Roberts, was afraid to say anything. His wife, Leizl, pregnant with the couple's second child, was a little more helpful propping him up. But the lift Els needed came from sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout.

''He just basically agreed that I had four more holes to play,'' Els said. ''And those four holes were the most important holes of my career.''

It turned out to be five, actually, and Els made par on every one.

The last was the most telling, a 5-foot putt following an explosion from a greenside bunker that tested not only Els' skills, but his heart. He had to play the shot with his right leg anchored on top of the bunker.

''That bunker shot was a piece of nerves,'' Levet said. ''He's very, very talented. I lost to a great player.''

No one who saw Els swing the golf club from the time he was a junior ever doubted the first part of that assessment. Buying into the ''great player'' part was tough for some people and tougher still for Els.

Despite the ''Big Easy'' tag, few men are harder on themselves. Once again, he has something to show for it.

''I didn't come here with a lot of confidence. I'm going to leave here as the Open champion,'' he said. ''It's been quite a journey for me this week.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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