At around 10am Ernie Els, the Big Uneasy, made his way back to the first green.
His arrival was heralded by a frantic shot of “fore left!” followed, a split-second later, by his whizzing ball which then ended up somewhere by the 9th tee after taking a ricochet off some unfortunate’s forehead. The victim was soon back on his feet, anxious, along with everyone else, to see just how Els was going to get on.
The previous day he had made it to within two feet of the pin in three, and then taken one, two, three, pause for breath, four, five, six strokes to get the ball in. This time he rapped his first putt from 47 feet to 12 inches. Everyone seemed to sigh in relief. Only, it’s not the long ones that are giving Els trouble. And as he strolled up to tap it in, everyone tensed again. He settled himself. Then sent it skittering by. He holed it on the way back, so walked away with a double bogey.
Els said afterwards that he felt like he must have forgotten to put on his trousers, because of the way everyone was staring at him when he arrived at the course on Friday morning. “I felt kind of embarrassed,” he said, “I didn’t feel like myself.” The first day had been “absolutely nightmarish”, he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been tested like that before.”
At the same time, he’s old enough, and wise enough to know that “if you play this game long enough it is going make a fool out of you”. He was just sorry that it had happened to him on the “biggest stage”. Never mind the old line about the Masters starting on the Sunday afternoon, for Els, five over after one, it was all over on Thursday morning. Imagine if Devon Loch fell at the first. And then had to get back up and flog himself on around the rest of the course.
It was horrible to watch, so of course everyone did. The video footage spread across the web through social media. The first rolled by left. So did the second. And the third. At which point Els walked away to gather himself. Then he missed on the right. So he tried to idly tap it in backhanded. And missed it again.
Els has had trouble with his putting for a long while. But never quite like this. He had the bewildered air of a man unable to complete the most rudimentary task, one he had already performed countless thousands of times, as if he found that he could not bring the cup to his mouth to drink, or pick up the pen to sign his own name. Except in Els’s case, it was all unfolding in front of a crowd of thousands. He said afterwards that the experience left him feeling “dead inside”.
It would have broken many players. But Els has been the bravest player in Augusta this week. Another man might have turned right rather than left off the 1st green, and hightailed it back to the clubhouse. Els just got on with the job of grinding out his round. “I don’t know how I stayed out there. I can’t explain how I did it,” he said later. Every putt was an ordeal.
He explained that he had, bizarrely, decided to switch his putting stance the Tuesday before the tournament started. By Friday he had wisely decided to switch back to what he had been doing, which was leaning in on his left foot and swinging down on the ball. It worked a lot better for him, and second time around he shot a one-over-par 73. A good score on a day in which the course was making fools of pretty everyone playing it. Even so, he missed a number of short putts along the way.
Though Els did not use the word, it is clear that he is fighting the yips. In the past year he has missed 18-inch putts at the Dunhill Links Championship, the CIMB Classic and the South African Open. He is 46 now, a little late in the game to find that all of a sudden you can’t “putt with a stick”, as he put it. “What holds you back from doing your normal thing? I don’t know what it is. I can go to that putting green now and make 20 straight three-footers. And then you get on the course and you feel a little different and you can’t do what you normally do.”
Some players beat the yips. Jonny Miller had a bad case when he won the Open at Birkdale. He put a blob of nail polish on his right thumbnail and stared at that as he drew back the club. Bernhard Langer has had his battles with them, too. He has tried pretty much every fix, but found the best, in the end, was prayer.
In the past Els has used a belly putter. But they are banned now, so he does not have the luxury. As his playing partner Jason Day said, unless Els can find a cure, his career could be over. And Els knows it.
“A lot of people have stopped playing the game, you know,” he added. “It could be anxiety, it could be a lot of stuff. It could be because I’m running out of time at this beautiful place.”
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