Mention Ernie Els, and people who should know better tend to forget that golf is hard. In the sport's shorthand hype, Els is the guy who has everything—youth, strength, touch, technique, nerve and his name on the U.S. Open trophy. He has even learned to look at leader boards. Of course he's a world-beater.
The trouble with Els is that he keeps providing grist for that mill. He did it when he won the Open at Oakmont last June at the age of 24. He did it at the end of last year when he won the World Match Play, the Sarazen World Open Championship and the Johnnie Walker World Championship. The fact is, he does it almost anytime his fluid, seemingly effortless swing is on display.
Els did it again on Sunday in Irving, Texas, at the Byron Nelson Classic, winning by three strokes over Robin Freeman, Mike Heinen and D.A. Weibring on the strength of a second-round 61—the lowest score on the PGA Tour this year—and a door-slamming finish of four birdies over the last six holes.
That last bit of heroics came after Els had shown that golf is indeed hard and that he is human. Having begun the fourth round with a three-stroke lead, Els found himself one behind after 11 holes and looking down the barrel of an 18-foot par putt to keep from dropping another stroke. The round had changed from a formality into a street fight, but that's precisely when Els, a 6'3", 210-pound native of South Africa, once again demonstrated that while he may play pretty, he knows how to win ugly.
Just as he did after opening bogey, triple bogey in his 18-hole playoff against Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie at last year's Open, Els responded by setting his disappointment and anger aside and performing. Applying a lesson from Oakmont, where he nearly blew the championship by not knowing where he stood on the 72nd tee, he looked at the leader board. Seeing he was one behind Heinen, he honed in on the task at hand.
"I just tried to knuckle down, and I really wanted to hit a good putt," Els said afterward in the clipped accent of an Afrikaans speaker who didn't learn English until he was 10. "When I made it, I felt like maybe something's going to happen now."
Something did. Els followed his critical par saver by holing a 30-foot putt for a birdie on the next hole and then a five-footer for another on the hole after that. By the time Els had jammed in an emphatic final birdie on the 18th for a closing 68, he had set a tournament record of 17-under-par 263 and earned his first official victory in the U.S. since joining the PGA Tour last August. With his 15th win worldwide, Els moved past Bernhard Langer and into fourth place on the Sony Ranking, behind Nick Price, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo.
Els knows there is more hype in the offing. He tends to play his best in the kind of 100� heat that hung in the air in Irving last week. His next three tournaments are this week's Buick Classic, the Colonial and the Memorial, and with the weather warming up he figures to be in the hunt. If he wins again or even plays well, he will go to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills not only as the defending champion but also as the focus of attention.
Everyone who has come into contact with Els, from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to countryman Gary Player, has projected greatness for him. With each victory, superlatives are becoming consensus. "He doesn't do anything wrong," said Freeman after playing with Els on Sunday. Added Weibring, "What's amazing is that nothing in his game stands out from the rest. Every area is exceptional."
Although he appreciates the praise, Els tries to head off such talk. "I don't really try to listen to what people say about me," he says. "I don't think my game's quite there yet. It's a funny game, you know. When you win a tournament, you feel like you can take on anybody. But just a couple of weeks ago, I was nowhere."