Ernie Els was once the No. 1 player in golf—for exactly a week, in June 1997. This abbreviated stay atop the World Ranking is emblematic of Els's enigmatic career. Every stupendous achievement seems to come with an asterisk, and that was again the case with Els's victory last week at the Genuity Championship, in Miami.
The good news for Els was that he won in the U.S. for the first time in a year and a half and that he finally beat his nemesis, Tiger Woods, to whom he has finished a runner-up six times. The bad news was that at one point on Sunday he had frittered away all but a stroke of what had been an eight-shot cushion. Woods began the final round with birdies on the first three holes, and thereafter Els's ball striking was erratic, his putting tentative. In the end he eked out an even-par 72 and a two-stroke victory, but he didn't exactly put the fear of Hogan in Woods.
This kind of maddening performance is routine for Els, who has long frustrated fans with his unrealized potential. In 1997, at 27, he won his second U.S. Open, only two months after Woods's epochal victory at the Masters. Els seemed destined to become the Player to Woods's Nicklaus—a formidable package of game and guts who could ride the rivalry to dizzying heights. Instead Els has threatened to become the next Freddie Couples, a supreme talent who gets off the bus one stop short of greatness.
Sated by his second Open victory, Els's performance slipped badly in 1998 (when he fell out of the Tour's top 30) and '99 (missed cuts at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship). He rallied to put together an amazing run in the majors in 2000. Unfortunately it coincided with Woods's historic summer. Els's hat trick of second-place finishes (including a pair to Woods by a combined 23 strokes) recalled Greg Norman's Saturday Slam of '86. A player who had once been feared was suddenly eliciting pity.
Els admits that the ensuing emotional hangover unsteadied him throughout the first half of last year. At the British Open the independent-minded Els sought out psychologist Jos Vanstiphout. As he continued to work on healing his damaged psyche, Els also made a long-overdue commitment to improving his conditioning. Much has been made of the fact that Els's seven-year winning streak on Tour ended in 2001, but late in the season his game began to peak, as he won twice outside the U.S. He carried the momentum into last month's European tour Heineken Classic, in which he stormed to victory on one of the world's great courses, Royal Melbourne. No wonder Els is feeling bullish. "My time is coming," he said last week.
It's an exciting thought, but Els's commitment, like his results, tends to waver. He's a fun-loving jet-setter who owns houses in London, Orlando and his native South Africa, but the residence of record for him and his wife, Leizl, is the tax haven of Paradise Island, Bahamas. Els is also a doting father to two-year-old Samantha as well as Ernie Els Design Ltd. The budding architect already has two courses to his credit, in Urbana, Md., and Shenzhen, China, of course.
The Tour's Florida swing begins the big push to the Masters, but the peripatetic Els will travel to Augusta by way of Dubai, where he's playing this week. When he finally arrives at Augusta, he could thrive on the longer, tougher layout. Then again, his game may not show up at all. With Els, you never know.