- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — Beware the Big Easy.

Ernie Els looks like a different man than the beleaguered player who left Winged Foot with his putting a shambles, his reconstructed left knee still an annoyance and his commitment to the game in doubt.

That version of Els told Golf Magazine: “The quicker I can get to my goals, the quicker I can get out of here.”

His thoughts obviously clouded by the frustration of the longest victory drought in his career, the 36-year-old South African seemed to have things backward. Men without a passion for the game, players who want to “get out of here,” typically lack the proper frame of mind for collecting majors and accomplishing goals.

A month later, most of it spent at home in London either resting or swing-tweaking with David Leadbetter, the three-time major champion showed up yesterday at Hoylake.

“I really feel good about my game,” Els said. “I’m hitting the ball quite nicely. … I felt at times last week I played as good as I ever have, tee-to-green.”

That’s a fairly bold declaration from a man who has won two U.S. Opens (1994 and 1997) and a British Open (2002) behind perhaps the most majestically smooth swing of his generation. It’s a serious statement coming from one of the game’s ultimate stand-up guys, a player whose candor has occasionally been disconcertingly bracing. Remember Els’ on-shoulder sightings of “Little Men”?

The point is that Els isn’t given to exaggeration. Tiger Woods says exactly what he wants people to think. Phil Mickelson says what he thinks people want him to think. Els simply tells the truth.

So when Els says his knee feels fully recovered for the first time since he totaled it inner-tubing in the Mediterranean in August, one should tend to believe him.

Els enjoyed a 2004 season that was equal parts distinguished and deflating, finishing 2-T9-2-T4 in the majors to become the first man since Jack Nicklaus (1977) to record four top 10s in a major season without a victory. It was the kind of emotionally taxing season that drives a man to focus on his winery and course design — the kind of season that drives a man to jump on an inner-tube attached to a speedboat.

The resulting knee surgery gave Els a much-needed emotional respite from the game. But his physical recovery has been slower than expected. He hasn’t played poorly: Els holds the active mark for consecutive cuts made on tour (35) and has four international victories over the last two years. He just hasn’t reached the victory circle in the States. After a winless 2005 on the PGA Tour, his first fruitless season since he joined the tour (1994), he has followed with a gimpy 2006, his victory drought now stretching nearly two seasons.

“I think my swing did suffer a little bit because I was trying to stay away from the knee,” said Els, who formed some bad swing habits trying to avoid the tender joint. “You can’t do that in a golf swing. You’ve got to get to your left side. You can’t hit the golf ball from your right side. I think that had a little bit to do with this little slump I’m in.”

The combination of continued convalescence and his first extended session with Leadbetter this season at last week’s Scottish Open seems to have restored what was once the game’s sweetest swing.

Els finished T9 at Loch Lomond despite missing a load of putts. And a solution to his issues with the flat stick could be forthcoming this week on the slowish greens at 7,258-yard, par-72 Hoylake.

“I think I’ve been a bit tentative with the putter,” Els said, pinpointing the only current weakness in his game. “I’ve always been a good putter. I just need to start making some and see the ball go in the hole. … You can be quite aggressive with your putts [at Hoylake], and there’s not a lot of break. So, touch wood, maybe this week I’ll make a lot.”

Perhaps more meaningful than any improvements in his fitness and technique, however, is the drastic change in Els’ state of mind over the last month. He’s stepped back from his other businesses, made two separate reconnaissance trips to Royal Liverpool a la Phil Mickelson and seems to have regained his passion for the game.

“Golf is everything for me now,” Els said. “I’m really just 100 percent playing golf right now.”

And when Els is fit and focused, he has proved he’s the game’s most competent challenger to the current titan tandem of Woods and Mickelson.

“I feel confident about my abilities now again,” Els said. “I’ve done the work, now it’s just a matter of time before I do something good again.”

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