Ernie Els returned to the PGA Tour last week in Irving, Texas, after a three-week trip home to South Africa and answered at least one of the questions that have been plaguing golf. No, it wasn't that question. Els finished 63rd at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic, 15 shots behind winner John Cook, and served no notice that he was ready to lay undisputed claim to being the world's top player, a title hotly pursued by the likes of Tiger Woods, David Duval and Justin Leonard. Instead, Els put to rest the inquiry that has dogged him for more than five years, or since he began dating Liezl Wehmeyer: What's taking you so long to propose?
So after Els clearly outdistanced Cook in congratulatory hugs and handshakes from Tour players and their wives—Wehmeyer said yes to his question, popped a fortnight earlier—he seemed poised to address that other unresolved matter with the U.S. Open looming and the heart of the golf season at hand. "It gets a little tiresome," Els says. "What can I say? I can't say, 'I don't think of the other guys.' Of course I do. It's healthy competition. We let you guys do the talking. In journalism, you've got to make an argument."
As a two-time champion, he might find the Open the appropriate place to state his own case for No. 1. In 1994, Els teed off at Oakmont as a 24-year-old rookie delighted that he had just won enough money with a second-place finish at the Buick Classic in Westchester to earn his Tour card. Five days and 92 holes later, he won the title, surprising no one more than himself. "If you go to Europe, here, wherever, you don't just walk out on the Tour and start winning," he says. "I walked out and won the U.S. Open. I felt that maybe the guys thought I got lucky. I tried to prove to people it wasn't luck."
So when the 1995 majors rolled around, the Big Easy, as Els is known for his swing and his demeanor, became the Big Uneasy. "Instead of me doing it for myself," he recalls, "I was trying to show the public, friends, everybody. I tried too hard."
Els missed the cut at the '95 Masters and, as defending champion, missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. In the 11 majors since, Els not only hasn't missed a cut, but with his steel-nerved stretch run at Congressional last year, has also won his second Open title. This time around as defending champ, he is approaching the Open with his more customary calm. "It's only after the second U.S. Open win that I changed my outlook," he says. "What gives you confidence is playing well in the majors. That's what all of us work for. That's where you get respect, where you force respect, winning majors and playing well in them."
Els dropped to No. 2 in the World Ranking two weeks ago after Woods won in Atlanta but moved back to first on Sunday even though Tiger finished 12th at the Nelson. He believes the debate about who's No. 1 won't cease until some members of the contending quartet get into a final-round showdown in a major. Until then, the most innocent of comments will be analyzed for gamesmanship. During a teleconference for the San Francisco media last month, Els said he would be surprised if Woods played well in the Open at Olympic. His hardly revolutionary explanation—that Tiger's strengths are not catered to by the course's narrow fairways and thick rough-got lost when reporters gave his comment a more provocative slant.
"I don't want to shoot myself in the foot," Els says. "Tiger said it himself. At Valderrama, they took the weapons out of his hands. Olympic is the same thing. I'm not saying he hasn't got the game. I'm saying the course is not best suited for it."
Woods may actually feel more comfortable at Olympic than Els. "It's like a home course to me, either that or the San Francisco Golf Club," says Tiger, who spent as much study hall time as possible at those two courses during his two years at Stanford. "At Olympic, I know how to play the ball. I played there so many times. You have to shape your shots well."
If Mark Twain's comment that the coldest winter he spent was a summer in San Francisco proves apt, Olympic may not be hospitable to Els. One of the reasons he and Liezl spend 350 hours a year on air-planes is that he chases hot weather. Els played in the United Arab Emirates, Australia, South Africa and Thailand this year before he won at Bay Hill in March. By sticking close to the equator at the beginning of the year, he misses the Tour's California swing. "I don't know how it will change when we have the world tour," Els says. "The bulk of it is in the U.S. It doesn't bother me too much, but if you're going to call it a world tour, make it a world tour."
In five years, Els has played once at Riviera (the 1995 PGA), almost once at Pebble Beach (the two rounds of the canceled 1996 AT&T) and once at Olympic, where he finished 17th in the 1994 Tour Championship. The USGA won't set up the course as charitably as the Tour did. "Olympic is a little different," Els says. "Most of the Opens I've played in have been on the East Coast. I love the older golf courses, the big trees, the bentgrass fairways and the poa annua [on the greens]. I feel at home on an East Coast golf course."