Good ol' Ernie Els. With his moon face and wide, crooked grin, the rangy 26-year-old from South Africa looks as edgy as a teddy bear, especially when he is having a beer or three with his mates. It's a temperament that has been considered an asset for someone with his special talent.
"Ernie's so easygoing," says Greg Norman. "Which is exactly why I think he will just keep on winning."
But lately there have been doubts about that. The moment he won the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, Els graduated from wunderkind on a free pass to heir apparent under a microscope. Recently it seemed that easygoing Ernie had become as angst-ridden as another moon face with a crooked grin, good ol' Charlie Brown.
Last year Els kept the doubters at bay by following his stellar 1994 season, in which he won five significant tournaments worldwide, with a victory at the GTE Byron Nelson that included a 61. But by last week's Buick Classic at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., 13 months had passed since Els had won in the U.S. That was more than enough time for a whispering campaign to create an unflattering characterization: Els is a softy with no stomach for the demands of greatness, and he would rather lounge around his beach house in South Africa than match wills with the world's best players. It was wondered aloud whether other gifted twentysomethings, players such as Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Justin Leonard, were better built for the long haul.
Worse, critics cited growing evidence that Els had devolved into a poor closer. Exhibit A came in last year's British Open at St. Andrews, where he was tied with eventual winner John Daly after three rounds only to shoot a closing 75 to finish 11th. Three weeks later at the PGA Championship at Riviera in Los Angeles, Els was seemingly in top form, holding a three-stroke lead going into the final round. But he floundered to a mistake-filled 72 that left him eating the dust of Steve Elkington and Colin Montgomerie. Then at the Memorial the week before Westchester, Els was tied for the lead with Tom Watson with 17 holes to go, only to embark on a stretch of sloppy play that led to a 75 and a tie for sixth.
Clearly Els was feeling the heat. "I was starting to worry that I couldn't finish tournaments," he said. A fourth-round scoring average of 73.11, 147th on the PGA Tour, confirmed his fears.
Wouldn't you know it, Els had to come within 30 miles of that vortex of anxiety, Manhattan, to put himself at ease. After four days of aggressive, often overpowering and always cool golf on a cranky 74-year-old course specifically set up as preparation for the U.S. Open, Els's 13-under-par 271 was eight strokes clear of runners-up Elkington, Tom Lehman, Jeff Maggert and Craig Parry.
Els won in the way that had raised all the expectations about him in the first place. His 6'3", 210-pound body produced seemingly effortless power. Bending his tee shots both left and right, Els routinely cut doglegs, and when he missed a fairway, he was strong enough to neutralize the major-championship-length rough. On the greens, bolstered by a new putter he had picked up after his Sunday debacle at the Memorial, Els's stroke was mostly brilliant.
Most important, though, was a sense of confidence that allowed him to play with unusual boldness on a course designed to punish the errant shot. He used his driver on Westchester's two short par-4s, the 333-yard 7th and the 314-yard 10th, twice reaching the green, and he dominated the course's three par-5s. He played those five holes in a combined nine under par. On Westchester's toughest par-4s—the 8th, the 11th, the 12th and the 15th average 463 yards in length—Els was even par, nearly two strokes better than the field. Speaking for the foursome of runners-up, Parry said, "He made us all look like fools, really."
"It was gutsy golf," said Norman, who played with Els in the first two rounds when the latter shot 65-66 to open up a five-stroke lead. "Ernie used his driver everywhere without really worrying about where he hit it, because he was in a zone with his short game. He had his swing under control, great touch and a clear mind." Certainly clearer than Norman's after Sunday's round, during which the Shark was heckled by a fan who was removed from the course.