- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

GERMISTON, South Africa As Ernie Els hovered over the 5-foot putt that would win him the British Open last weekend, his mother, Hettie, and father, Neels, recalled that he had been there before. Not at Muirfield, by Scotland's shimmering Firth of Forth, but on the family pool table.

"This is where Ernie would stand barefoot," his mother said. On the light blue surface the boy would practice for hours with a cut-down putter across the table's longest diagonal to the pocket.

Today Els' history is there in pictures and in silverware. The barefoot boy, the youthful trophy winner at a local golf event, a team photo of schoolboys and a variety of cups line the pool room walls. Photos show him triumphant in the 1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens, but the silver replicas are back at Ernie's own home on a luxurious golfing estate near the continent's southernmost coastline, 600 miles away as the crow flies.

It was a comfortable upbringing in a pleasant suburb that molded young Ernie, son of a millionaire who struck it rich with a truck hire company. Once he had given up serious rugby playing ("The guys were too rough for me," said the Big Easy with a smile), his father installed a putting green and bunker in the huge yard, some distance from the swimming pool. The top of the flag says, "Augusta," and the hole, "18."

That's the next target, of course. Els' two dreams had been to hole out at the British Open and the Masters. But he got there by a route that, like the streets of Johannesburg, has not always been paved with gold.

Though his father played golf, it was Els' grandfather who had the patience to drive him and his younger brother, Dirk, down to the local club and watch the two hone their silky swings.

Yes, the two of them. Ernie's brother is regarded as an even more stylish swinger, but his temperament was never as cool. That has made the difference between being a golf superstar and a truck-hire manager something the younger Els has had difficulty coming to terms with.

Els was a star in sports-mad South Africa from his late teens, but when he was playing a tournament alongside the glorious vineyards of Stellenbosch, an old Cape Dutch university town, he met Liesl. "I hadn't even heard of him," she recalled. "And when he asked me for a date, I turned him down."

They've been together more or less ever since, and she got Ernie to install a Jacuzzi on the veranda of his beachside home in South Africa. Now she's the mother of his delightful little daughter.

Liesl has been an important influence. She walks courses with him and gives him a few well-chosen words of advice, often as simple as, "Just calm down, man."

Yes, Els does need calming down. His genial, laid-back demeanor, big smile and slow delivery of moderate speech conceal a bundle of internal worries. Essentially, Els sometimes lacks self-confidence. That much has become apparent in the last couple of years as Tiger Woods asserted the dominance over golf that many earlier had predicted for Els after he won his first U.S. Open title.

There have been big highlights in Els' career, such as winning three World Match Play titles in a row and leading South Africa to an easy victory over a strong American team in the World Cup in front of adoring home crowds.

Phoned and feted by none other than Nelson Mandela, a sports fanatic, Els has benefited from the new acceptability of South Africans worldwide.

But the big man also has had to cope with some delicate problems. One has been a tendency to put on weight; another was the frustrated South African media, which started to question their hero's determination and his devotion to golf, especially after he became a father.

Then too, Els had a political tightrope to walk. Golf is essentially a white man's game in South Africa, despite genuine efforts to encourage a grassroots black golfing culture. And Els found himself obliged to use a black caddy, at least inside South Africa.

Then, of course, there's the Tiger factor. Coming into this year's Open, the facts spoke for themselves: Major championships for Els: 2. Major championships for Woods: 8.

The Tiger factor was, he might now admit, starting to destroy him. Even before he teed off last week at Muirfield, Ernie let slip a telling comment: "These days, you play the golf course and you play Tiger. You can beat the field, but it doesn't mean you're going to beat Tiger."

Five emotion-laden days later, Els could echo what Greg Norman said after his glorious and long-awaited win in the windswept Open at Turnberry: "The monkey's finally off my back."

Now Els is full of renewed confidence, and aims to collect the remaining two majors (the Masters and PGA) so that he can equal the feat of his childhood hero and South African superpatriot, Gary Player. To achieve this, the 32-year-old needs the kind of Tigerish determination he showed on the 17th hole Sunday.

After a double bogey on a par-3 hole, he hammered a beautiful 4-iron onto the par-5 green. Then he made two extremely awkward bunker shots under extreme pressure that bore the mark of a worthy champion.

But it's hard to know what mental scars may re-emerge if he is found wanting the next time he faces the field and Tiger in a major. For the Big Easy, those putts on the 18th green just don't get any easier.

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