The punching bag still hangs between two cars in the garage of
Ernie Els's house outside London. Els hasn't smacked the bag
lately--not since he injured his right wrist on it in March, when
he was the hottest golfer in the world and people were starting
to say "Tiger who?" Before he hurt his wrist, Els had won four
tournaments in his first five starts, had two second-place
finishes, established a PGA Tour scoring record of 31 under par
at the Mercedes Championships and was the leading money winner on
both the PGA and European tours. Since the injury, he has had to
withdraw from two events and has been a serious contender only
once, at the Volvo PGA Championship in England. So you can say
that the bag won.
Why would a 33-year-old, world-class golfer on the best streak of
his career tangle with an overinflated bladder? "Frustration,"
answers Leizl Els, Ernie's wife and the mother of his two
children. "It's a great release. Even I like hitting it."
To watch Els play golf in his almost oily way, you wouldn't guess
he ever gets that worked up. But he wasn't happy in January when
an unheralded Chinese golfer, Lian-Wei Zhang, beat him by a
stroke at the Singapore Masters. Els was equally disappointed
when Robert-Jan Derksen of the Netherlands, who wasn't ranked
among the top 3,000 players at the time, edged him on the last
hole of the Dubai Desert Classic. It was only days after the
Dubai debacle that Els, the defending British Open champ, went to
the garage and threw his fateful punch.
"I caught it at a bad angle," says Els, who hadn't bothered to
tape his wrists beforehand. He didn't think the injury was that
serious--the damage was to the soft tissue where the thumb meets
the wrist--but for 10 days he went twice a day to a physical
therapist. The wrist got better. Then it got worse. The wrist was
so sore at the Bay Hill Invitational that Els shot a final-round
77 and finished 11 lengths behind Tiger Woods.
Els has seen the inside of a lot of rehab centers since then--in
London, Orlando (where he resides when he's in the U.S.),
Augusta, Hilton Head and Houston. He's had heat treatment, cold
treatment, whirlpool, magnets, ultrasound and stretching. "I went
to a physio guy in Florida who had this weird machine that had a
suction thing on my arm," Els said last week at the U.S. Open. "I
don't know what it was supposed to do, but it eased the pain."
Els tied for sixth at the Masters, but then the wrist got worse
again. In May he had to pull out of the Deutsche Bank SAP Open in
Hamburg. British journalists speculated that he was skipping the
tournament because the greens were in bad shape. Els denied this,
pointing out that SAP is one of his principal sponsors. "I wish
some sectors of the press would get their facts straight before
they print stuff like that," Els wrote on his website
Last week, upon his arrival at Olympia Fields, Els insisted that
the wrist would not hamper his effort to win a third U.S. Open
title. "It's fine now," he said, holding up his right hand and
wiggling his fingers. "I'm fresh, I'm prepared both mentally and
physically, and I hope to start another run."
Judging from his performance at the Open, Els has a right to be
optimistic. "He's been hitting it sideways for two days, but the
wrist hasn't given him any trouble," said Leizl, sketching golf
holes on a pad as she followed Ernie in the third round. "Hitting
from the rough has been no problem." Asked if the punching bag
was headed for the dustbin, she shook her head and smiled. "He
still wants to hit that bag. He must be a little bit stupid. Or
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS FLIPPED OUT Els hung near the lead but couldn't make big putts.
69 | 70 | 69 | 72 | E | T5th