“If you asked me after my second U.S. Open win at 27, I would have said I would have won probably eight [majors] — at least,” Els said this spring. “And now, with a grand total of three, I would say yeah, I am a little disappointed I haven’t put another one on my resume. Other players, they would give anything just to win one. I think I probably could’ve won more.”
Els will arrive this week at Congressional a bit early for next week’s U.S. Open, and he’ll bring the same seemingly boundless talent and effortless swing he had 14 years ago. He also comes with the knowledge that he has 21 top-five finishes in majors, but has converted just three of them into victories: the first U.S. Open at age 24 at Oakmont, the dramatic victory at Congressional three years later, and the 2002 British Open.
Those accomplishments — or lack of them, in his view — define Els as a golfer. Among active players, only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have won more majors. Even at 41, Els’s circumstances on the course seem no different: same relaxed demeanor, same languid swing, same abundant gifts. So it’s not just Els who wonders: Could more have been expected from someone who owns 39 worldwide victories?
“Ernie, sadly, never understood the whole picture,” said Robert Baker, Els’s swing coach when he won at Congressional. “I mean this with the greatest respect, because I love the guy, and I love Ernie Els’s game. But Ernie should have won a lot more majors. As a golfer, he’s had a great career. But did he capture his potential? Not even close.”
Potential, though, can be a damning burden, its fulfillment often complicated. In evaluating a career, how do you factor in the unexpected, off-course development? How do you take one fact — that Ernie and Liezl Els’s second child, Ben, was born with autism — and determine its relationship with how someone hits a golf ball?
“People always ask in the negative way: Did it affect you?” Els said. “I’ve said for so long, no. But I would say, deep down, it probably does. I’m sure, in your subconscious, you are a little bit sad, because your boy, he’s not quite normal.”
Learning about autism
It took only a day. Samantha, Liezl and Ernie Els’s daughter, was an easy baby, “a perfect little girl,” Ernie said, “blond hair, blue eyes, just beautiful.” So eight years ago, when Liezl gave birth to Samantha’s younger brother Ben, the Elses had a reference point. And within 24 hours, Liezl knew: Ben’s behavior, his development, did not match Samantha’s.