Date: April 10, 2016
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: Els’ scars will never go away

Wow, just wow! Ernie Els made dubious Masters history today, doubtless enthusing hackers worldwide in taking six putts on the first hole.

Posted by Golf Australia on Thursday, April 7, 2016

Imagine the story of the opening round at Augusta being of a player who has never won the Masters conspiring to open his championship with a nine.

Ernie Els was the going to be the greatest player of the generation to follow Greg Norman, Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and American Curtis Strange.

Strange played with Els at the 1994 US Open at Oakmont and walked from the 18th green early in the week proclaiming he had just seen the ‘next God of golf”.

Ernie had the most elegant, fluid and technically correct swing since Sam Snead and he played the game beautifully. His incredible irons soared high and long, landing softly in the fashion of Jack Nicklaus, Norman and Snead. The tour's mortals envied that skill because they were shots beyond the capabilities of the average player. Everyone can hit it close from 150 yards, but it takes a lot more skill to hit greens with regularity from a hundred yards further away and the South African was one of the best at it.

Els won that '94 Open by holing, seemingly without nerves, from four feet to tie Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie and despite a triple-bogey on the second hole of the eighteen-hole playoff, he prevailed and Strange’s prediction seemed prescient.

A little over two years later, Tiger Woods turned pro and the careers of both Els and Phil Mickelson were the two most impacted by the awesome brilliance of Woods.

Tiger famously dominated his first major championship as a pro, the 1997 Masters, but it was Els who won the next, the US Open at Congressional. It was Montgomerie again who watched as Els knocked in another four footer on the final green to win by a shot. It was a fine putt, but no one who knew Ernie dreamt he might miss. His stroke was too pure.

He would win a couple of Open Championships, one in 2002 at Muirfield (beating Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet in a playoff) and another in 2012 when he was the recipient of the four consecutive bogeys to finish by Adam Scott.

By then he had resorted to a longer-than-normal putter anchored into his belly, presumably to steady fraying nerves, but it served him well on the 72nd green when he holed from 15 feet for a finishing birdie.

These past few months we have seen some pretty horrifying short putts from Els as a very twitchy right hand flipped the putter face off line and skewed the ball far to the left.

Els faced a tiny putt for a par four on the Masters' opening hole today and six putts later (only one of which was a careless backhander) he walked to the 2nd tee five shots over par.

It was breathtakingly sad to see a brilliant player seemingly helpless in the face of a flipping and almost uncontrollable right hand.

Those who have never yipped a putt are rare and lucky golfers. Most pros just learn to manage the nerves, but it’s a wearing game and few emerge unscathed from careers as long and successful as Els.

Nicklaus did it and so did Peter Thomson and Mickelson. In the end, though, Ballesteros looked worn down by the pressure of being the best in the game for a long time. Woods, too, perhaps, is in the same boat.

Els stoically soldiered on, finishing with two bogeys for an 80 but the scars from the 1st green will likely never go away.