“For ‘The Big Easy’ it’s not so easy anymore….” by The Sports Philosopher

March 19, 2012
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     I have always told whoever would deign to listen that I consider PGA championship golf, on Sundays, to be the finest viewing experience available in Sport.   But when I tell someone this, his (or her) face will usually go slack, and then twist up into an expression halfway between just having walked into an oft-used out-house in a foreign country and discovering that the person they are talking to has been convicted of abusing dogs.

This fine journalist is lucky Ernie didn’t throw him in a sand trap on Sunday….

This fine journalist is lucky Ernie didn’t throw him in a sand trap on Sunday….



     But it’s true.

     It’s true that that’s what I believe, and it’s just as true that golf IS the most tense, human-condition-revealing sport that television routinely brings to us.   The Super Bowl is only one day a year.   The World Series comes after 162 lazy, dreamily-paced regular season games.   But golf crowns a champion every week.   I’m tellin’ ya, there is more drama in golf, week to week, than anything on TV this side of a Jerry Springer all-day marathon….

     It has to be on a Sunday though.

     Because on Sunday afternoon is when they crown a champion.   A golf tournament is four days long, always finishing on a Sunday, weather permitting.   So on Sunday, you get to see peoples’ lives change forever, fortunes soar and tumble, and calm, reasonable people melt down right there in front of you while you sprawl out on the couch in your pajamas and gobble down chicken quesadillas and cherry vanilla ice cream.

     Happened again last Sunday.   Not necessarily the quesadillas part, but rather the meltdown part.

     It happened to Theodore Ernest Els.

     Ernie Els, nicknamed “The Big Easy” for his casual, fluid approach to this very difficult game, was once the next great thing in golf.   He exploded onto the scene in the early 90s like the Wunderkind that golf is always looking for.   Before you knew it he’d won two U.S. Opens (in ’94 and ’97), and was headed not only for Number One in the world, but headed for transcendent superstardom as well.   But in ’97, right at the height of his golf ascendency, a terrible thing happened to Ernie Els.

     Tiger Woods.

     Woods invaded the PGA Tour and started doing what Els was supposed to do.   Win everything.   Pile up the grand slam “majors”.   And no golfer on Earth suffered more at Woods’ ruthless hand than did Els, who finished second in grand slams to Woods no less than three times.   Suddenly the Big Easy couldn’t buy a slam.   Finally he cracked through in 2002 at the Open Championship to bag that elusive 3rd major, but that’s been it.   Nothing since.   The closest he has come to grand slam glory was at the Masters in 2004, when on Sunday afternoon Els seemed the sure winner, until Phil Mickelson scorched the back-nine in just 31 shots and ripped the winner’s traditional Green Jacket right off of the South African’s huge, hulking shoulders….  

     And in recent years, things have not gone well at all.   Injuries.   Poor results.   A tumbling world ranking.   A loss of confidence.   And no majors.   And now, suddenly the Wunderkind from the 90s is 42 years old.   He has tumbled out of the top-50 in the world.   Past his prime.   But still longing for the big stage.

Which brings us to last Sunday.

     At the Transitions Championship in Florida, Els shot up the leaderboard on Sunday with a string of birdies on the front-nine, and grabbed the lead.   He was pounding the ball with authority and precision.   He couldn’t miss a green.   Victory seemed his for sure.   He led by one shot, and was standing over a simple 5-foot birdie putt on 16 to go 2-up.   Make this 5-footer, and he wins easily.

     He missed it.

     He missed it badly.

     Y’see, here’s my point.   Els faltered because he had more at stake than the four guys chasing him who would wind up in a crowded playoff by vaulting over him (yes, of course he lost).   Els hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in two years.   And he needed to win to get back into the top-50 and thus qualify for the Masters, the tournament that has been his Great White Whale, where he’s never won, and I’m sure when he thinks about it he can still feel Mickelson ripping the greatest prize in golf, that elusive, ugly Green Jacket, right out of his grasp.   Win the Transitions, and he’s in next month’s Masters field.   Finish 2nd or worse, probably not. 

     The missed birdie at 16 started a chain reaction of frayed nerves.   Suddenly Els couldn’t hit a green with an elephant gun.   His approaches would stray left, spray right, the wheels clearly coming right off his wagon.   He bogeyed 17, and missed the green at 18.   I like Els.   I like him a lot.   I rooted hard for him (probably why he lost).   But it was not to be.   Worse yet, I knew it in advance.   On the 18th and final hole he had a little 3-foot putt for par which he had to sink in order to get into the crowded playoff.   Maybe 3 and a half feet.   Four feet, max.   Almost a gimme.   I could barely watch.   Because….

     He missed it.

     He missed it badly.

     In fact, from only three or four feet away, the ball didn’t even threaten the cup.   Missed the edge by two full inches.   For you and me, that’s the norm.   But in professional golf, from three feet, that’s horrible.   It was the dreaded bogey-bogey finish, every golfer’s nightmare.   The minute his ball wandered disinterestedly by the cup, Els’ tournament was over.

     Luke Donald wound up winning the playoff, and also thereby reclaimed the World #1 ranking from Rory McIlroy for the moment.   But that wasn’t the story.

     The story was The Big Not So Easy.   In defeat, Els could barely choke out the words when he was interviewed greenside right afterwards.   Which bordered on cruel, by the way.   The interviewer tried a couple tough, lame questions, but when Ernie was having trouble forming words and sentences, and it was clear he was going to explode if the brief interrogation were to continue, the reporter wound up just saying, “Uh, thanks for your time.”   Ugly.

     Later on, Els was quoted as saying, “Back in the day I would have made that putt, and would have won the tournament by two or three shots.   Now it’s a different story.”   Ugh.   Talk about brutal honesty.   Give him credit.   But it sure sounds wistful and sad, right???

     And that was just the 5-footer at 16 he was referring to!   Not the three and a half footer he yanked so badly on 18.

     I wonder what will happen to Els in the next few years.   He still has the game to maybe steal one more major, certainly more than enough game to win a regular tournament or two.   But still one wonders.   In golf, you never know.   The pressure is suffocating.

     Remember: Woods, far greater than Els, hasn’t won in over two years either.   And counting.

     Anyway, that’s why I watch golf.

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image0032

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered literary giant, and an unapologetic watcher of Sunday golf.   Brad’s other recent columns for La Verne Online can be found in the Sports Section under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.   His columns on very old and very underappreciated movies can be found by clicking Arts & Entertainment, then clicking ’Upon Further Review’.   Brad has also written 4 fine novels* and over 20 short-stories.   

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, of triumph, and of utter despair, called WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for that title on amazon.com, iUniverse.com, or bn.com.   And then order it.   And then READ it.   And then tell everyone about it.   And then read it again.   He thanks you.







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