- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — Ernie Els must be feeling a bit Uneasy these days.

Rarely has a man played so spectacularly in one season’s Slams only to emerge empty handed. With three gut-burning near misses behind him, the 34-year-old South African arrives at this week’s 86th PGA Championship with one more chance to salvage a season on the brink. But one can’t help but wonder if three major almosts has left the Big Easy too emotionally spent for a Wanamaker run at Whistling Straits.

“Yeah, I feel a little disappointed,” Els said Tuesday. “You give so much and you don’t really get a lot given back to you. But that’s the game, and I’ve got to live with that.”

Els has three major victories on his resume and a robust bank account to help him sleep at night. But satisfaction is a relative concept when your season has been defined by so many remarkable what-ifs.

At the Masters in April, Els played some of the best golf of his career, carding a final-round 67 only to be trumped by Phil Mickelson’s breathtaking 31 on Augusta National’s back nine.

Two months later at the U.S. Open, Els fell victim to the USGA’s ludicrous Sunday setup, final-pairing promise devolving into a closing 80 and a T9 finish at Shinnecock Hills.

Then came last month’s British Open and the season’s most revolting dose of castor oil. Els’ bid to become the first player to birdie the last three holes to win a major stalled when a tentative 10-footer at Troon’s final hole curled cruelly below the cup. That 72nd-hole shortcoming with the short stick still preying on his mind, he fell to American journeyman Todd Hamilton in the four-hole playoff, doubling his 18th-hole disappointment with another birdie miss on almost an identical line.

“I guess as long as I play the game, I’ll think about that putt,” said Els, still haunted by his regulation bid at the 18th. “I missed that one, and then I putted poorly in the playoff, missing four straight that would have changed things.”

While Hamilton leaped about the green with his caddie in celebration, Els wept openly in the background, head in hands. And minutes later, when Els was presented with the runner-up’s silver salver, he halfheartedly waved the sterling plate at the gallery, leaving no doubt he’d just as soon chuck the trinket in the Firth of Clyde.

“After the Open, I was quite disappointed. I think you saw that,” said Els. “It’s kind of tough for us to speak to you guys after a tough loss like that. It’s tough to kind of get yourself together.”

The question is whether Els has pulled himself together for this week’s final major. He took two weeks off after his tribulations at Troon and returned last week for a solid but unspectacular finish at the International (29th). He claims he’s left the season’s frustrations behind him.

“I’m OK,” he said. “In this game you lose more than you win, and you’ve got to take your losses and move on. … You start working out again. You start practicing again. You work on your game and get your mind ready for the next one.”

Nobody questions Els’ game. Few strike the ball better, farther or with more touch than the Big Easy. But his mind is a different matter. This is a player who repeatedly has mentioned his conversations with “the little man” on his shoulder. This is a man who needed a complete psychological overhaul, courtesy of Dutch guru Jos Vanstiphout, after finishing second in the first three majors of the 2000 season.

“[Then] I had a totally different feeling,” Els said. “You know, I was only in contention in one of them, at the Masters when Vijay [Singh] won, and the other couple, Tiger just played too well. … I got beat by 15 at the U.S. Open, eight at the British Open and two or three at the Masters. That was clearly a different deal. … This time I was right there, right at the edge of things.”

Some would say falling short in such fashion could produce even more emotional scar tissue. And despite the differences between 2000 and this season, Els is developing quite a reputation as golf’s current major bridesmaid. He now has six runner-up Slam finishes, five in his last 15 starts.

“That’s got to take its toll,” said Colin Montgomerie, who knows a thing or two about near-misses. “But Ernie keeps coming back. You’ve got to have the utmost respect for his resilience.”

But you’ve also got to wonder just how many close calls one player can endure before he begins to believe he’s another Avis — a man destined to be defined as an also-ran. Greg Norman could fill a library on the subject.

And while far more of the Shark’s shortfalls involved self-destruction, Els’ career does share certain eerie similarities with that of the charismatic Aussie. Both were athletic prodigies from the Southern Hemisphere who excelled at other sports before settling relatively late on golf. Both made their bones on the European Tour before coming to America and assuming the throne as golf’s No.1. And both are arguably more talented than decorated, featuring somewhat dubious victory-to-runner-up ratios in the majors (Norman 2-8; Els 3-6).

Els still has plenty of time to change his place in the game’s pantheon. A victory this week could vault him past Tiger Woods into the top slot in the world rankings and overwhelm a season of almosts. But both time and personal history are now working against the quintessential No.2.

“You take some solace in the fact that if you come so close so often, you must be doing something right,” said Els. “I’d love to win here and then win the Masters in April. That would be my Cinderella story.”

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