Sporting Life

Golf: Big Easy meets hard times with honesty and grace

Here's what you may do if you're an Ernie Els fan. You can drink an Ernie Els wine, at the Big Easy Bar & Grill, at a course designed by Ernie Els, while clad in a shirt from the Ernie Els collection, as you explore the Ernie Els app which asks:

Want Your Golf Swing To Be As Smooth and Powerful Just Like The Big Easy?

This, I gently tell Ernie Els in person yesterday, is a half-truth. No one can swing like him. A swing so elegant, fluid and serene that you'd put down Keats to watch it. A swing that suggests Thor with a velvet hammer.

Els, 47, laughs. He's a big man (191cm) with a large resume (four Majors, 70 wins), a hefty charm and a ranking in the high 300s (No. 380). He's still a presence if not quite a force - he hasn't won since 2013 - and even as TV cameras remain in love with his swing, he has started to slide from leader boards. His US PGA Tour profile for 2016 says 21 events played, one top 10, nine cuts, a year which can be condensed to a single word he uses.

"Crappy."

You could use the same word for ageing in sport: You once knew how to be great but you've forgotten how. You knew the feeling of complete control and now it's lost. And so I ask Els what becomes harder in the game as the years accumulate and his honesty is revealing.

 "I still feel if I can keep the whole thing
From left: Ernie Els, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia with their version of the mannequin challenge at the Madame Tussauds Singapore wax museum yesterday. The South African, ranked No. 380 in the world, said: "I still feel if I can keep the whole thing together, I can win." PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"It's unbelievable ... but what I have been struggling with especially last year was the decisions that I make. I used to be a guy that played very controlled golf. If it's a par four (where) you don't really need to hit a driver, I didn't do that. I would put a 3-wood in play because my iron game has always been my strong point. But I've been finding myself hitting drivers everywhere and making absolute rookie errors."

Interesting, I say.

"Very interesting," he replies.

"Because I saw Nick Faldo last week. Nick's a good 10 years older than I am. I asked him, 'What happened with you?' And he said, 'Exactly the same thing.' " He was hitting shots that were completely out of character.

"It's like your mind wanders into something different," Els said, "without you even knowing. Because we're busy with other stuff. In your prime you just concentrate on the next shot, the next shot. As you age, the game is so tough, it take so much concentration and will, and I think subconsciously you're sometimes not there."

Time is an assault in slow motion, it creeps up on the athlete and starts to bully him. The mind is gradually less obedient, the body more complaining. Like a congregation of irritants, travel becomes tiring, hotels become tedious and families become harder to leave behind.

No one can swing like Els. A swing so elegant, fluid and serene that you'd put down Keats to watch it. A swing that suggests Thor with a velvet hammer.

Greatness demands single-mindedness but life gets in the way. Course design, for instance, which Els loves, steals away his practice time. "I still love practising," he insists. "My boy is autistic and he loves to see me hit the ball. He loves to sit on the range. But obviously the intensity is not the same." I ask for a number on how much his practice time has declined by. "Forty-fifty per cent less," he says.

Age aside, golf is so hard anyway, so crammed with technique, so layered with anxieties, so rife with disorders. Great athletes suddenly play as if a hex has been cast on them. Tiger Woods abruptly had the chipping yips and Els the putting equivalent. At the Masters last year, facing a two-foot par putt on the first hole on the first day, he six-putted. To be humbled in public is painful, yet he does not flinch from talking about it.

He had a putting lesson just before the Masters which he concedes was an error, for it only added to his mental clutter. "I was so unsure. I got over it (the putt) and I was thinking, 'Maybe I should go with my old style.' Then I thought, 'No, let me try this new style.' Then I just froze, I couldn't get the putter back. It was the most frightening, most bizarre, most uncomfortable sensation that I ever felt on the course."

And yet for all the turbulence of age and the indifferent results and the indignities that time brings, Els still plays and it's easy to know why.

You're competitive?

"That's the thing," he grins.

It's in the athlete's DNA, this mad striving to outdo the next man, to engage him in a contest, to be acknowledged as better. Even at 47, the athlete surely thinks, maybe there is something left. Enough left. For one last win. And then another.

"I still feel," says Els, "if I can keep the whole thing together I can win. That's the carrot in front of you." So are history books which record that Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open when he was 52. Now and then stuff happens. Magic stuff. Like Els winning the 2012 Open Championship after starting the final day six shots behind.

"Where I am now," said Els, "I need to start performing at smaller events to get my confidence going and see where it goes. You never know. Momentum is a crazy thing. You start getting momentum, you start believing in crazy stuff."

It's time, he has to go, but I have a final query. Els used to be a gifted tennis player and I ask who his favourite player is. "Federer," he says. Of course we know why but it's best that he explains it himself. And lumbering to the door, looking back and laughing, Els drawls:

"He plays tennis the way I used to play golf."

Easily.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'Big Easy meets hard times with honesty and grace'. Print Edition | Subscribe