Dorman: Comeback story of the year belongs to Els

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Ernie Els' win at Royal Lytham came just three months after failing to qualify for the Masters.
November 27, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

In a 2012 season that featured many inspiring global golf achievements, few can match -- and just two can surpass -- what Ernie Els did on a bright Sunday in July on England's West Coast at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.

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It was there in the 141st British Open that Els shot arguably his best major championship final round in a World Golf Hall of Fame professional career that spans 23 seasons. With an inward 32 for a round of 68 that shook the lead from a faltering Adam Scott, Els captured his 65th career win, his second Claret Jug and his fourth major -- 10 years after winning his third.

Those unvarnished facts should place the accomplishment firmly among the year's top five. But factoring in a few variables and some intangibles, it will be argued here that only Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods achieved more than Els during the 2012 season.

The accomplishments of McIlroy and Woods have been well-chronicled. Suffice to say that McIlroy, who won his second major championship at the PGA Championship, birdied the final five holes at the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, for his fifth worldwide win of 2012. Woods had three TOUR wins for his first multi-win season since 2009, propelling him to No. 3 in the world -- trailing No. 1 McIlroy and No. 2 Luke Donald -- and back in the mix of any "Who's Best?" golf discussion from Main Street U.S.A. to Mainland China.

Then comes Els, whose year is best understood by recalling the magnitude of his win at Lytham, something the passage of four months may have obscured for some.

At 42, winless since November 2010, Els was an afterthought when the day began. He was tied for fifth with Zach Johnson, trailed Scott by six strokes and had to first pass Woods, Graeme McDowell and Brandt Snedeker just to reach the 32-year-old Aussie. All he did was put on a career performance that was seven strokes better than Scott's final round, five better than Woods's, six better than Snedeker's and seven better than McDowell's.

In so doing, the Big Easy provided proof the he is not -- despite signs to the contrary in 2011 -- ready for the big easy chair. In the face of silly odds published at 469-to-1, Els played a classic round of golf that rose to the level of fiction, movie stuff, almost too good to be true. It evoked images of Jackie Gleason's magnificent portrayal of the aging pool maestro who -- after suffering a beating in an all-night session to Paul Newman's brash young character in the timeless 1961 movie, The Hustler -- freshens up and comes back for more.

He glides into the room like a dancer, clean-shaven, cologned, nattily attired and smiling. Just before administering the inevitable comeuppance, Gleason addresses Newman's character Fast Eddie Felson by saying, "Eddie, let's play some pool."

Els came in like that on Sunday at Lytham. Wearing an almost-surreal aura of confidence, calm and composure, he didn't look like someone who trailed Scott by six strokes. The night before he had spoken briefly and succinctly about his attitude, and his remarks contained shades of Ben Crenshaw's famous "I've got a feeling," statement on the eve of the U.S. Ryder Cup team's 1999 shocker at Brookline.

"For some reason, I've got some belief this week," Els pronounced. "I feel something special can happen. I feel I've put in a lot of work the last couple of -- let's call it the last couple of years, especially the last couple of months.

"So something good is bound to happen. Hopefully, it's tomorrow."

The culmination of what Els referenced is just what unfolded the next day. The process really had begun back in June of 2010, when, after playing his way into contention, he blew his chance to win his third U.S. Open by bogeying two of the final three holes at Pebble Beach. That was the low point.


"I was gone," he told Tom Callahan of Golf Digest earlier this year. "Over the edge. That's when my putting problems came. That's when the doubt -- the really serious doubt -- hit me.

"I thought my window had closed," he said, adding, "I thought I was coming to a premature end."

Instead, he went to work on a new beginning. He decided to cut back on the nightlife, which -- though it didn't come between him and a rigorous practice schedule -- consumed more of his time and energy than he thought was healthy.

He began seeing a sports vision specialist, Dr. Sherylle Calder, who was well known in South Africa for her work with the Springboks rugby side. Though he had known the doctor since 2003, he hadn't worked with her until last January, two days before the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa. Her initial testing showed Els that his head and eyes were out of sync.

Just before Els went out and played well enough to get into a playoff, which he lost, Calder made what turned out to be the most astute prediction of this, and maybe any other, golf season when she told him: "You're going to win a major this year."

He got into contention at the Transitions Championship in March, but played poorly down the stretch and finished tied for fifth. He was stung by the defeat, and could have suffered a setback from some of the abuse he caught from critics.

"Obviously in March I looked like an absolute fool," he said at Lytham. "People were laughing at me and making jokes about me and really hitting me low, saying I'm done and I should hang it up."

But he knew better. Armed with confidence, putting better, striking the ball as well as he had in more than a year, Els tied for fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational the following week. He finished second to Jason Dufner at the Zurich Classic in April, tied for seventh at the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour in May and finished ninth at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, where Webb Simpson emerged as a world-class threat.

Els was ready for the British Open and he knew it. He had done everything he could to get prepared, and he did everything he needed to do to win. The timing of his resurgence is made all the more remarkable by the emergence of McIlroy and the re-emergence of Woods.

To be sure, others won more than Els. Luke Donald had yet another year of metronomic worldwide consistency -- two wins and a total of 10 top 10s. Dufner won twice and finished second in a four-week span. Zach Johnson won twice, Els's South African countryman Branden Grace, who appears destined for stardom, won four times in Europe, Bubba Watson's mind-bending shot from the woods right of the 10th hole that won The Masters and Brandt Snedeker emerged as a closer to win the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and the FedExCup.

But Els, World Golf Hall of Fame golfer, sportsman, competitor, and winner, showed once again why his fans are legion. Before wrapping his hands around the Claret Jug, he walked over to his friend Adam Scott by the clubhouse at Lytham and put his arm around his shoulder.

He offered some words of consolation -- from one who had been in the same position more times than he cares to remember. He told Scott to forget the loss and focus on the many chances he is sure to have in the future.

Els will have many more himself now. With the British Open comes a five-year exemption. That's 20 major championships. He may just get some of the ones that slipped away, such as the '95 PGA at Riviera and the 2002 Masters.

All of that is what makes 2012 so significant for Els. He's back and he's staying until he's ready to go.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.