It is hard to imagine Ernie Els' being in a hurry. Not with that
long, languid stride of his. Not with that slow, fluid swing.
And not with that easygoing personality. But on Sunday night,
April 9, after he had finished second in the Masters to Vijay
Singh, Els was in a big hurry. He and David Duval were to play
in a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match the next morning at
Cherokee Plantation, near Charleston, S.C., and Els was supposed
to get there that night. "It was only 125 miles away on the map,
but the trip was a nightmare," Els says. "We couldn't find the
damn place. We made so many wrong turns it took us 3 1/2 hours."
Twice Els got pulled over by state police. The first time was for
speeding. Els speeding? It's easier to imagine Singh's doing
stand-up comedy, or Fred Couples's running NASA. Says Els, "The
officer said, 'Where are you going in such a rush?' I said, 'I
just played in the Masters, and I'm trying to get to this
Cherokee Plantation place.' Luckily he was a golf fan. He asked,
'Who won the Masters? Where did Tiger Woods finish?'" Els didn't
get a ticket.
The second time, Els was stopped for making a Bat-turn in the
middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. "The second cop was
great," Els says. "He said, 'Normally no one is driving around
here this time of the evening.' We were lost, and he helped us
with directions. I never would have found the place." Again, no
The Els entourage finally arrived at 1:30 a.m. That Els and
Duval, drained from the emotional final round of the Masters,
didn't play well later that morning was hardly a surprise. (Els
shot a 75; Duval, who had tied for third at Augusta, a 73.) The
show's producers moved up the tee markers after the players
struggled over the first seven holes. "David and I were flat, but
I'm glad I played because it got my mind off the Masters," Els
says. "If Monday had been a normal travel day, it would have been
a long one thinking about what I could've done on Sunday if I had
hit some better putts."
The rest of the week, which was devoted to the MCI Classic at
Harbour Town Golf Links in nearby Hilton Head, was also supposed
to be therapeutic. The MCI is a low-key event. The players are
recovering from Augusta, and most of the fans are on vacation.
Els, still looking sharp, seemed poised to take the edge off his
Masters disappointment. After three rounds his worst score had
been a 68. He held a two-shot lead over Steve Lowery, and after
birdieing two of the first six holes on Sunday he was in command.
Even Davis Love III, the four-time winner at Harbour Town who
figured to be Els's most dangerous pursuer, had fallen away,
continuing a trend by fading in the final round with four bogeys
in the first 12 holes.
On Masters Sunday, Els had played well enough to win. Singh was
simply better. At Harbour Town on Sunday, the MCI Classic was
Els's to win, and he lost it. A poor chip at the 8th hole led to
a bogey, and everything went downhill from there. "When I
three-putted the 10th, it was like, Oh, what have you done?" Els
said. A drive into the pines at the 12th led to another bogey.
Then came a three-putt bogey at the 14th. Up ahead, Stewart Cink
and Tom Lehman were charging to six-under 65s. When Cink, a
three-time All-America at Georgia Tech, birdied three of the
last four holes, he had his second Tour victory, by two over
Lehman and by five over Els, who closed with a 74, and six
others, including Love and Singh.
"It was a terrible day," Els said in the locker room, shaking
his head, and maybe the long week had finally caught up with
him. But no matter how he looked at it, Els, the man they call
the Big Easy, was feeling a bit rushed. He's only 30 and has a
pair of U.S. Open victories plus five other Tour titles in
addition to 22 wins internationally. But in this fast-paced
Tiger Woods era, Els senses that the clock is ticking. He wants
to play his way into history and knows he will have only so many
opportunities to do it. "I've had a good career," he says, "but
I'll be happier after I've won all four majors. You go right
into a different class. I've had chances to win all four, but it
doesn't happen easily. You don't win the first time you're in
contention. You have to be there years and years. Tiger Woods
makes people think winning is easy."
Woods's success caused Els to rededicate himself to the game this
year. He has gotten some help from David Leadbetter, a fellow
resident at Lake Nona in Orlando, and the work has paid off. Els
has played well all season, finishing outside the top 20 only
once in nine starts on Tour, but he doesn't have a victory to
show for it. The Masters would have been big. Els came in eighth
in his first Masters, in '94, but didn't crack the top 10 again
until two weeks ago. "After that first year I thought it was
going to be a lot easier," Els says. "I thought the course was
set up perfectly for me."
When he looks back on the Masters, he sees the tournament hinging
on the rebuilt 16th green. He figures that his tee shot on Sunday
would have nestled close, maybe even gone in the hole, on the old
green. On the new one his ball stayed above the hole, where he
faced a slick eight-footer, which he missed. "That putt was
probably the biggest of my Masters career," Els says. "I would
have had a bit of momentum."
Pressing, he missed another birdie putt at 17. He had a chance to
get within a shot of Singh with a 10-foot birdie at 18, but he
missed that one, too. "I had birdie chances on every hole on the
back nine and couldn't make any putts," he says. "I felt like I
threw away the '96 British Open when I bogeyed 16 and 18 [to tie
for second]. In the '95 PGA at Riviera I shot a 72 in the final
round and let that one go. [He tied for third.] This time I
didn't make any mistakes. Vijay just played better than anybody."
Last week the same could be said of Cink, an accomplished player
who narrowly missed finishing among the top 30 money winners in
each of the last two years. He had committed to play in the MCI
three times before but had always had to withdraw--once because
his wife, Lisa, had surgery to correct a minor heart defect; once
when his second son, Reagan, was born; and once because he was
exhausted. Before last week Cink's only visit to Harbour Town had
come when he was playing a mini-tour event on the island. After
finishing third and winning all of $1,100, he splurged by taking
Lisa and his oldest son, Connor, to the Crazy Crab restaurant and
climbing to the top of the famous lighthouse next door, where he
looked down at Harbour Town's equally famous 18th hole. At the
time he didn't figure that one day he would play that hole with a
chance to win the MCI Classic on the line. On Sunday, Cink hit a
nine-iron from 170 yards to 10 feet and, needing only a par to
win, rolled in the birdie putt.
Likewise, Els didn't expect he would come to the 18th on Sunday
five shots in arrears. "I played so well the whole week, and then
I just lost it," he said, shrugging. "What can you do?" Carrying
a shoe bag in one hand, Els smiled, turned and headed out the
door of the tiny locker room. He seemed to be in a bit of a
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Crashed Els was cruising on Sunday with a three-stroke lead when he hit the wall on the back nine, shooting a 39 and losing to Cink.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Fire power Cink blew past Els and Lehman by birdieing three of the last four holes.
"I've had a good career," Els says, "but I'll be happier after
I've won all four majors. You go right into a different class."