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Burning Question
Ivan Maisel
May 25, 1998
Who's No. 1? Ernie Els offered a clear-cut answer in his personal life, but out on the Tour the issue is still in doubt
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May 25, 1998

Burning Question

Who's No. 1? Ernie Els offered a clear-cut answer in his personal life, but out on the Tour the issue is still in doubt

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Cook, on the other hand, had nearly all his success on the West Coast for the first 16 years of his career. In the last three seasons, however, he has won three Tour events east of the Rockies. Cook certainly looked comfortable on the TPC Four Seasons Resort course over the weekend, when rounds of 66-65 brought him home at 15 under, with a score of 265. The win capped two weeks of encouraging news. Cook hasn't played well of late—he missed two of four cuts before the Nelson—and he attributes his slump to not feeling well. Without providing details, he said last week that he had undergone a battery of tests while home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., earlier this month. "When your body just isn't working, you wonder, 'Is it me or is my game really this bad?' " he said. "It's nothing dangerous. I was feeling crappy, and I wanted to know why. I still don't feel great, but I'm better."

Cook won by three shots over Tour rookie Harrison Frazar, Hal Sutton and Fred Couples, who repeated the most painful elements of his second-place finish at the Masters. At Augusta, Couples knocked a six-iron into Rae's Creek on number 13, made double bogey and lost control of a tournament he had led for three rounds. On Sunday, after losing a five-shot advantage to Cook's barrage of birdies and his own sudden inability to put the ball in the fairway, Couples again knocked a six-iron into the drink, this time the pond fronting the 171-yard 17th. A pitch and three putts later, a hole that might have soothed the pain from the Masters instead ripped off the scab. The long-term prospect for Couples's recovery is good, however. It hardly needs repeating that he is not the introspective type.

"So I'm going to have to buy a new six-iron," he said on Sunday. Later, when asked about how to balance his third top-three finish (the other was at Houston, without the late-round aquatics) in the last six weeks against the disappointment of blowing leads, Couples said, "I don't learn anymore. I have learned enough. All you do is just live with it. I'm not 28 years old where I go home and say, 'Man, I can't wait to do it again,' because I know next week I should be able to do it again."

If Couples is the Tour's most well-liked golfer, then Els and Wehmeyer are one of its most well-liked couples, perhaps because they are both warm people unaffected by success. Wehmeyer, who grew up on a farm in Stellenbosch, South Africa, balked at giving a tale of the tape on her engagement ring because, she says "materialistic things aren't important." Suffice it to say that the round solitaire is bigger than a carat, smaller than a Titleist and as flawless as the Big Easy's swing. "I didn't want to see any color," Els says. "It had to be clear. Some have yellow. Some have purple. I wanted a clear stone. It's very, very difficult to get that."

In a blow to the national pride, the most famous athlete in a country known for its diamonds had to go to a Belgian jeweler after a three-month search to find what he wanted. Once he bought the stone two weeks ago, Els began plotting a romantic proposal. He was thinking of a restaurant, soft lights and good wine—up until the moment one night at home when he pulled the diamond out of his pocket and dropped it on the floor. "What is that?" Wehmeyer said.

Els, in full panic: "What do you mean?"

Wehmeyer asked again. Els, still a three-wood away from composed, said, "It's a rock I picked up."

Moments later, he surrendered peacefully, gave Wehmeyer the diamond and popped the question. "The way he asked me was so him," she says, laughing. "I wouldn't have it any other way." Els's assessment: "I'm useless."

Els and Wehmeyer own a home in Orlando, where tennis star Jim Courier, one of Els's close mates, recently spent several weeks while his own house was being constructed. But they are most excited about their new property in South Africa. It's an 84-acre farm in George, near the Fancourt Golf Club, which is Els's home course. Though Wehmeyer grew up on a farm, it was Els who fell in love with the place. "As we went through the gates," he says, "I told Liezl, 'Don't get too excited, but I want it.' I still wanted to get the price down."

They have about 30 sheep, 15 head of cattle and two dogs. When a ewe died during their recent stay, Els and Wehmeyer awoke daily at 7 a.m. to give bottles to two orphaned lambs. For a city kid like Els, who grew up in Johannesburg, the work is a revelation. For Wehmeyer's family, when Els does any work, it is a revelation. "While we were home, Ernie told one of the papers he was helping build fences," Wehmeyer says. "He watched people building fences." Her parents suggested framing the article.

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