JOHN MCHENRY: Ernie Els can’t let this humbling incident define him

Ernie Els has been writing and re-writing records throughout his prolific golfing career. To date, the “Big Easy” as he is affectionately known by his peers, has 67 career victories worldwide, four of them in major championships.

Though not fancied for this week’s Masters, his pedigree in the game would still have suggested that when in contention for victory he is still a very hard man to beat down the closing stretch.

That notion, of course, went out the window with his meltdown six-putt on the very first hole on Thursday afternoon leaving Ernie with an embarrassing record that is never likely to be matched again in the entire history of professional golf!

Now we all know how humbling sport can be at times at any level but how does a player resolve or a caddy or coach even dare to query such a “soul- destroying” incident? Best left alone until Els calms down and decides it’s time to address the subject! It’s what tour players do. It’s their only form of protection for their self-confidence.

So how could anyone let alone a professional superstar have a six-putt? Well, for those who have never experienced problems with their putting (yips) it’s not just as simple as a pressurised environment influencing a bad technique.

 

Sure there are mechanical and mental elements that can be refined but if the solution was as simple as that, don’t you think some of the greatest and most talented players of all time — Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Bernhard Langer with their putting, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Baker Finch driving and even more recently Tiger Woods chipping — would have overcome those same mechanical flaws that have now apparently turned Els from one of the best putters of all time into someone who’s now grinding over even the simplest of putts?

For Els, the problem it seems is a little more complex in that involuntary muscle motions (yips) caused by performance anxiety and nervousness can also exacerbate the problem, but this is not an issue just confined to golfers as the symptoms are similar to the problems suffered by surgeons, dentists, musicians and others who make repeated motions in small, precise areas.

Yesterday, Ernie would have entered the ring once more battered and bruised but not out! Pride and determination were the order of the day, as he would have known that he had little or no chance of making the cut.

It would have been all about redemption and while the golfing analysts and general public no doubt wished him well, they would still have been watching him, waiting for that moment where he would have to prove himself again or fall on his own sword, risking even more damaging scar tissue. Moving off the putting green and onto the first tee box, it was obvious yesterday even the players knew this was going to be a big day for Els. Nothing of course would have been verbalised but their eyes would have sought eye contact, nervously wishing him luck.

Even the photographers would have been primed — waiting to portray that moment of anguish over a shot that used to be second nature to Els and it didn’t take long, he missed a two-foot putt on the very first green, to the audible gasps of the gallery.

Is this a career defining moment for Ernie Els? I certainly hope not but he will be aware he will not be able to be competitive or indeed survive on tour without being a great putter. He will already know and have competed against many great players who have developed “yips” type symptoms and have already left the stage – players like David Duval.

And he will be concerned that this issue doesn’t fester into a mentally uncontrollable beast that destroys the rest of his game, as he already understands the potential domino effect that bad putting can cause in that in order to compensate for it, it forces you to try make less errors from tee to green so that you don’t putt under too much pressure. As a result, you take fewer chances make less putts and become less competitive.

Now is the time for Els to draw on some positives and as recently as last week in Houston Els must remember that he led the field in putts from inside 10 feet, making 68 of 70.

So it’s not all bad news and a strong back nine of 34, (two-under par) for a 73 yesterday should see him returning home to Florida chastened but sufficiently motivated to address his putting problems and find a workable solution.

If Bernhard Langer could do it then there is no reason at all why Els can’t follow suit, but my guess is that we will be watching this space for some time to come!

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