- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Let’s hope Ernie Els is over his Captain Jack Sparrow Phase, so he can get back to winning major championships. Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main may be romantic in principle, but it takes a lot of the glamour out of it when you tear your ACL, are out of action for four months and drop from third to fifth in the world rankings.

Come to think of it, it’s about time Els won this major championship, the Masters. He was second (by three) to Vijay Singh in 2000, second (by an excruciating one) to Phil Mickelson in 2004; the man is definitely due.

Not that that ever means anything at Augusta National. Greg Norman, a runner-up here three times, never got to slip on a green jacket. Tom Kite, a bridesmaid twice, has the same sad story. Ditto Johnny Miller.

Unless your name is Nicklaus or Palmer or Woods, you only get so many chances to win at Augusta. At a certain point, opportunity stops knocking. Which raises the question: Has it stopped knocking for Els, now 36 and still feeling the effects of knee surgery, or will his calamity on the high seas cause him to rededicate himself to golf? Twinges of mortality can be great motivators.

Right now, though, nothing is coming easy for the Big Easy. His comeback started out well on the European Tour — with a victory in the Dunhill Championship and two second-place finishes — but his results haven’t been quite as good on the U.S. tour. And even his tie for eighth in the Players Championship, one of his two top 10s, wasn’t what it seemed; after all, he wound up 11 strokes behind runaway winner Stephen Ames.

Indeed, Els hasn’t won on American soil since the 2004 Memorial, nearly two years ago. That’s an 0-for-21 stretch, folks.

At Doral last month, he told reporters, “I’m still three to six months away from 100 percent. [The knee] is still bothering my follow-through, but I’m working on it every day.”

This week he offered the following medical update: “The knee is not too bad. It’s pretty good when it’s nice and warm.”

(Just wondering: When his knee isn’t “pretty good” — that is, when it aches — does that mean it’s going to rain?)

His mishap on the Mediterranean, when his upper body twisted one way and his left knee stayed put, still has him shaking his head. All golfers, he said, “have our things that we do off the golf course, water sports and so forth, and what happened to me was just kind of freakish. You feel like a bit of [a jerk] when it happens — you shouldn’t have done it — but we’re still human.”

Besides, it’s not like he pulled a Kellen Winslow Jr. and went flying over the handlebars of a motorcycle. (He’s also a stand-up enough guy not to offer some phony excuse — e.g. Jeff Kent’s infamous “I was washing my truck.”)

“It gave me a good break, basically at home,” he said. “It’s been hard work coming back, though, and obviously I’ll think about it more before I do things like that during the golfing season.”

Or even during this lifetime.

The player who took over Els’ spot in the rankings while Ernie was away was fellow South African Retief Goosen. That’s right, the Big Easy isn’t even the No. 1 golfer in his own country at the moment. And that might not change anytime soon. Goosen has been on a roll of late, taking second at the Players and tying for fourth last weekend in the BellSouth. He also has fared well at Augusta (and actually led going into the final round in ‘02.)

Happily, there’s no tension between the two. They still play together “quite a lot in practice rounds,” Els said — and did again this week. “Retief’s really playing well. He’s doing everything you need to do to do well here. I think you can definitely put his name up there as a contender.”

As for Els’ prospects, well, much depends on how his knee holds up. He had no problems on the flats of Sawgrass — except for his admitted tendency to “finish poorly in each round” — but Augusta’s hills will take more of toll. Weather delays could also make it harder on him … the stopping and starting. It’s been a while since the Masters didn’t suffer some interruption.

But at least Els is back swinging. He was certainly missed at the Presidents Cup in September; his presence at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club may well have kept the U.S. from taking back the trophy. In the future, the Big Easy just needs to remember who he is. You’re one of the stars of the professional golf tour, Ernie, not one of the stars of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

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