Tiger Woods, for the second straight year, will miss this week’s Open Championship due to injury, but the broken-down superstar is not far from the mind of Ernie Els as he prepares to start his 99th major tournament.
That’s because the 47-year-old South African believes he could have added a few more W’s to his four major titles total had he played in a different era from the one Woods dominated. Indeed, Woods’ quick ascendancy to the top of the golf world after his historic 12-shot victory at Augusta in 1997 cost Els some trophies as well as his peace of mind.
“That Masters really shook up all of us,” Els told the Daily Mail recently. “Everything was different after that.”
Not only were Els and his colleagues playing in front of hordes of reporters and spectators, which produced “a difficult setting in which to compete,” but they were witness to Woods making “crazy shots” week in and week out.
“He really was a force, and he dried up my majors tally dramatically,” contended Els, who conceded that trying to keep up with Woods cost him his patience, discipline, and a bit of his sanity.
“I’d been comfortable competing against Colin [Montgomerie] and everyone else but Tiger had a little more power in his engine and suddenly I’d lost my control. Athletes are all control freaks, and, when things are not going your way, you’re anxious,” he said. “Yes, I won some events when he was chasing me down, but it was a very different environment.”
Els figured he spent five years mystified by Woods, to whom he was a runner-up in five PGA Tour events — the most second-place finishes for any Tiger opponent, according to PGA.com.
The Tiger puzzlement led Els to seek help for the part of the game that took place between his ears.
“You could tell I’d lost my mind because I went to crazy Jos [Vanstiphout],” Els said, referring to his longtime mental coach who had no formal training as a psychologist. “But I played some of my best golf from 2002 until I blew my knee out in 2005. I should have won more majors during that period.”
Els’ last major victory came at the 2012 British Open, courtesy of Adam Scott’s hideous collapse, and Golfodds.com has him as a 250-1 long-shot to earn his third Claret Jug come Sunday. That sounds about right, given Els’ recent play, which includes seven missed cuts in 12 tour starts in 2017.
Still, Els is deservedly proud of his longevity in the game’s most prestigious events.
“Twenty-five years of majoring is quite something, isn’t it?” said Els, who will play the first two rounds at Royal Birkdale with journeymen Ross Fisher and Bernd Wiesberger and, barring unforeseen setbacks, will get to the century mark in majors at next month’s PGA Championship. “One hundred majors? What a good life-lesson it has been.”