British win puts Els on surer footing

Even with Woods in field, South African finds he has a major game plan


July 23, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GULLANE, Scotland - When Ernie Els won the first of his two U.S. Open championships at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh in 1994, another two-time Open winner proclaimed the young South African as more than merely the game's budding star.

"He's the new god of golf," said Curtis Strange.

Strange wasn't alone in such hyperbole, and for good reason. Els was big and strong with the smoothest of swings, a surgeon's touch on the greens and a personality that seemed unfazed by his newfound status.

Who knew that Tiger Woods was going to overtake Els and everyone else in the sport three years later?

"It's difficult to live with the fact that I might have won more majors had Tiger not been there," Els, now 32, said earlier this year. "Without Tiger, I would have probably won two or three more and Phil Mickelson would have also had a major.

"It would have been a lot different, but what can you do? I've got to find a way of winning one with him in the field, and that would make it so much sweeter."

With Woods in the field at the 131st British Open at Muirfield but out of contention after shooting a professional career high 10-over-par 81 on Saturday, Els found a way.

But it wasn't as sweet as it was exhausting, because it took a lot for Els to hoist the Claret Jug he had coveted since he was a kid. It took more than five hours and 23 holes - including five holes of what began as a four-man, four-hole aggregate playoff - for Els to stagger off the 18th green as a major champion again.

"It feels unbelievable," he said shortly after making a 5-foot putt for par to beat Thomas Levet of France on the first hole of sudden death after Australians Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby had been eliminated by one stroke. "As you see my expression, it hasn't sunk in yet. I'm still in a little bit of shock.

"It was a very tough day. In a couple of hours, I will probably be out of my skin. It's been an unbelievable four days. Four days and five holes. Most of the time I played really well. I really hung in there mentally and physically. My game stood up most of the time. I didn't come here with a lot of confidence. I'm going to leave here as the Open champion.

"It's been an incredible little journey for me this week."

It had been a road back to this moment for Els.

When he won his first U.S. Open, in a 20-hole, sudden-death playoff over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, Els and his wife, Leizl, were just dating. When he won his second, outplaying Montgomerie and Tom Lehman down the stretch at Congressional in Bethesda in 1997, they were married but without children

Now the father of a 3-year-old girl and with Leizl expecting their second child, Els has tried to make his family as big a priority as his career. After finishing third on the PGA Tour money list in 2000 - the year he won once and finished second five times, including three of the four majors - Els slumped last year to 15th and didn't win a tournament in the United States.

Some also attributed that to Els not having the toughness to compete with Woods.

"His mind is probably the best in the game and when he's on, he's going to blow us away," Els said at this year's Masters. "It's hard for me to say that, but that's just the way he is. Tiger is showing everyone just what can be achieved if he commits himself in a different way and this is what the psychologists have come to realize.

"If I can play through my expectations, my problems and my goals, who knows? Tiger never talks about playing against other people. He's always playing against the golf course. Everyone's problem is that you have to get out of the mind-set that he's absolutely the best. You see the leader board, Tiger's there and you just can't get past that level."

Not that Els, ranked third in the world behind Woods and Mickelson, wasn't going to try.

"I hope to get a different route and I'm busy with it," he said. "I just want to keep pummeling away until it falls over."

Els had some help here on the Scottish coast, when a torrential rainstorm that was accompanied by 30-mph winds on Saturday blew Woods out of the hunt for a third straight major championship this year as Els was shooting a more than respectable 1-over-par 72 to take a two-shot lead going into the final round.

There were other legitimate challengers for Els, but not the world's best player.

Perhaps the most treacherous opponent Els had to face was himself, or at least his self-doubting, negative-thinking alter ego.

"I guess I'll never get rid of him [the alter ego]," said Els, who has worked extensively with sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout, who last year helped South African Retief Goosen win the U.S. Open. "It's getting better. I had a chance a couple of times to break away and the little guy kept sitting on my shoulder. Even in the last playoff hole, I got him back again."

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