Indeed, after winning two events in South Africa at the beginning of the year, Els hit a flat spot when he embarked on his American schedule in March. His best finish on the Tour's Florida swing was a 17th at Doral, and he bombed at the Masters. A logical favorite at Augusta because of his length and touch, Els was off his game and made matters worse by trying too hard. He shot 72-75 and missed the cut.
Although he tied for seventh at Hilton Head the following week, Els had lost both confidence and patience and had gotten away from the cool temperament that veterans believe is his most valuable attribute. Rather than follow his original Tour schedule, Els and his girlfriend, Liezl Wehmeyer, left their temporary digs in Orlando, where Els is building a house, and spent three weeks at his beachfront home north of Capetown. They passed most of their time fishing and having barbecues with friends. Els played golf only four times. "I think it really relaxed me and made me want to play well again," says Els, who returned to the States only three days before the start of the Nelson. "And when you have that desire to play well, you really dig a little deeper."
After opening with a one-under 69 on the TPC at Las Colinas, Els went very deep last Friday at Cottonwood Valley, another par-70 with driving areas wide enough to put a big hitter into a comfort zone. Having played the first nine in three-under-par 31, Els dropped six birdies on the back side, closing with a 35-footer on the 18th. The 61 tied him for the lead with Freeman and confirmed that his instinct to take time off had been right.
On Saturday at the TPC, Els scored a ho-hum 65 in which his putting was again superb. Leading by three, he was looking for a solid round to close out the win. But on Sunday the game became hard again. Els three-putted the 3rd hole from 18 feet for a bogey. By the time he bogeyed again at the 8th, he had fallen behind Heinen, who had blazed to a 30 on the front nine. Els was driving erratically, and on the 11th hole he three-putted for bogey, this time from 45 feet. When he sprayed his tee shot right on the 12th, missed the green and chipped 20 feet past the hole, Els looked beaten. "My head was kind of rolling at that time," Els says. But it didn't roll off, and the crucial par putt rolled in.
As long as Els can keep that head firmly atop his broad shoulders, his American journey should be a case of manifest destiny. His greatest menace appears to be an ambivalence toward the demands of success and fame. "A lot of people want your attention, and a lot of people want you to do things," Els says. "And I'm not that kind of person."
Then again, according to Wehmeyer, Els is precisely the kind of easygoing person who will stay cool and centered in the spotlight. "He says he hates the attention, but then he handles it so well," she says. "Yes, it makes him uncomfortable, but he misses it when it's not there. Don't worry, Ernie will never back off because of fame. He is doing exactly what he wants to do."
Els admits as much. "I think I've got two or three years, if I really play well, to get to Number 1," he says. "I don't think you should see it as negative to be Number 1 and have all that attention. That's why you want to be there. That's the sort of thing you've got to face in life now. Especially in America."