By Michael Williams
GolfWRX Staff Writer
There would have been something so right about Ernie Els (The Big Easy) getting back in the win column in New Orleans (The Big Easy). Alas, it was not to be. Els’ 8 footer to win the Zurich Classic slid past the hole, and Els continued on his slide that stretches back to 2010 without a Tour victory. As this golden opportunity turned to dust, the question that hangs in the air like a Mickelson lob wedge is this: will Ernie ever win again?
Els, 42, has been a force in world golf almost from the moment he put down his tennis racket and cricket bat to focus on golf at the age of 14. He was an outstanding junior player, and he translated that promise into a professional career that included two U.S. Open titles before the age of 30. And like Fred Couples before him, it was not only what he did but the way he did it; a swing so effortless that you’d think he would finish 30 yards short on every swing.
But after hitting age 40 Els found himself facing the three-headed monster that guards the gates of that age for golfers; family, injury and putting. Els has an autistic son, a situation that prompted his family to relocate to the United States to have access to the best facilities. Els is more than able to provide to provide for his son’s care but he acknowledges that it has taken a toll. Injuries came, not from golf but from participating in the other outdoor sports that he enjoys. Knee, hip and back injuries produced swing irregularities that robbed Els of precious distance and accuracy. And the putting that had been so nerveless early in the career became so errant that he switched to the long putter in an attempt to right the ship.
Under the tutelage of Butch Harmon, Els has resurrected his full swing, and most importantly, his putter. He has four top-5 finishes this year and if two holes had gone differently he would have two wins.
But like he old saying goes, “if if was a fifth, then we’d all be drunk.” History says that wins after that age of 40 are rare, with major wins at that plateau as evasive as a federal balanced budget. Sam Snead is considered the most successful senior golfer, winning a regular Tour event at an astonishing 52 years of age. Less known but equally amazing are his four straight West Virginia Open wins … the last coming when he was 62.
But by the numbers, the real King of (Porch) Swing is Vijay Singh. Even larger that Els in physical stature and matching him in his graceful swing tempo, Singh was the late bloomer to Els’ debutante. If you include his 2003 Phoenix Open win a month shy of his 40th birthday, Singh has won an astonishing 22 times on the PGA Tour in his 40’s. Throw in three majors, three leading money-winner titles, a Vardon Trophy, a PGA Player of the Year title and a stint at World No. 1 when Tiger Woods was at the height of his powers and you have the greatest career at that age in history. For Els, Mickelson and even Woods, Singh has set the bar for late-career excellence.
Els said in an interview, “I get asked all the time about retirement. Of course, it’s going to happen one day … But I’ve got a few good years left in the tank. I honestly think I have another major or two in me, but I have to get my putting back on the right track. That’s the key.”
He couldn’t be more correct.
Like a prank birthday present that gets passed on, shaky hands have plagued golfers from Hogan and Snead to Langer and Ballesteros after 40. It’s ironic that the issue that kept Singh from winning more earlier in his career is the issue that arises later in the career for other golfers, namely, the flat stick. Throughout his career, Singh was a suspect putter who was known to change putters, grips and stances more often than a traffic light in Times Square. It likely worked to his advantage, because there was no sharp drop in feel or performance when he passed a particular age. For Ernie and the rest of the current Old Guard, the challenge is to forge the past and, like Singh, do whatever it takes to hit it close then roll it in. If they can, then talk of majors is realistic. Without it, the expectations, and the results, will continue to diminish and we will find ourselves talking more and more about them in the past tense.
Michael Williams is the contributing editor of Newschannel8 Capital Golf Weekly and Bunkershot.com, as well as a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
You can follow Michael on twitter — @Michaelontv