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Els Might Carry Too Much Baggage

If they handed out rankings for such things, 2004 was a Near-Great Year for Ernie Els, who had a shot at winning all four majors. This year is different. Not only is it already over for Els after he tore up his knee last week while on vacation, but he didn’t have a sniff at the Masters, the U.S. Open or the British Open.

So rank 2005 for Els as a Nothing-Much Year.

It shouldn’t have happened this way, but he has been leaving signs for a long time now that this simply wasn’t his year. Of course, it hasn’t been a total washout. The South African won three times on the European Tour before June, in such far-flung places as Dubai, Qatar and China, and that has been part of the problem.

A year ago, Els endured some mild criticism for his globe-hopping to play golf and pick up appearance fees. He played five consecutive weeks and criss-crossed seven time zones before the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he may have been gassed when he shot an 80 in the final round, playing in the last group with eventual winner Retief Goosen.

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He didn’t change his schedule much this year before the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He dropped one tournament, but he still played three weeks in a row and four out of five and piled up 14,000 air miles before showing up at the U.S. Open, which he has won twice. This time, he never recovered from a second-round 76 and wound up tied for 15th, nine shots behind winner Michael Campbell.

Along the way, Els dumped his management company, IMG, in favor of the Wales-based International Sports Management and agent Andrew “Chubby” Chandler. And to get to where he wanted to go even faster, Els sold his jet, a Gulfstream G-4, and bought a new one, a G-5, which stays in the air about 13 hours, about four hours more than his old one.

Els and jets have had been on a first-name basis for a while. That’s why it might be hard to say that his schedule affected Els in a negative way because he has been doing it for so long, yet that is precisely the point. Els turns 36 in October, his two children are growing up and he’s certainly not hurting for cash, with more than $25 million earned on the PGA Tour alone and homes in Wentworth, England, and in George, South Africa.

If Els was focused and fit last year when the movement in golf was to close the gap on Tiger Woods, which they did, then it seemed to hit Els the hardest of the so-called Big Four when Woods began separating himself from the pack again this year.

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At the European Tour’s BMW Championship in late May, played at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England, basically his home course, Els tied for 39th. He told a friend over dinner that he was bushed and that something was missing. Three weeks later at Pinehurst, he said the same thing after his disappointing performance and hinted he might not play again until the British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Els changed his mind, showed up at Loch Lomond the week before the British Open and was 11th at the Scottish Open, but he looked fat, played flat and couldn’t do anything at the Old Course, where he was 12 shots behind Woods.

That’s what Els has to think about while he waits for a second knee surgery to reconstruct his anterior cruciate ligament, which helps provide rotational stability for the knee.

Els had one surgical procedure last week, after he ruptured the ligament playing with his kids on a Mediterranean vacation. But the next one is more complex, although it’s largely arthroscopic. Surgeons will use Els’ hamstring tendons to reconstruct the ACL. They will be held in the bone around the knee with small screws and anchors.

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The end result is that Els probably is done until January, and that’s a long time to think about what went wrong -- whether it was his golf, his scheduling, a combination, or just too much Woods and Vijay Singh.

It’s also enough time to appreciate what Els has put together -- 15 PGA Tour victories and 51 others worldwide -- a combination that should easily guarantee the Hall of Fame for the man known as “Big Easy.”

It’s true he may have underachieved with only three major championships (Woods had that many in 2000 alone), but that may simply be his misfortune for playing his prime in the Woods Era. As for any other troubles Els has gone through, it looks now that at least some of them are self-inflicted.


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