Although it is the tournament he loves above all others, the British Open has seldom bestowed its unquestioned affections upon Ernie Els in return. Oh, sure, he emerged from a four-man play-off involving the Frenchman Thomas Levet and the Australian duo of Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby to finally lay hands on the Claret Jug at Muirfield on July 21, 2002. But the unfailingly gracious South African might have been champion on any number of other occasions if it hadn't been for a lipped putt here, an unlucky bounce there.
Three times a runner-up and third on two occasions, Els describes his abiding affection for golf's most ancient trophy thus: "It's the hardest tournament in the world to win, no question, for the simple reason it just means so much whether you are born in Troon like Colin Montgomerie or in far-off Germiston like me. Whenever I stood over a six-foot putt as a kid playing against my friends, it was always the British Open that was the prize. I've won two US Opens - and you obviously take any major which comes along - but I'll never forget having to stand on the 18th green having finished second and watch the other guy hugging the jug to his chest. It gives you a bit of a sad feeling when you've narrowly failed to get your own hands on it."
The 138th Open Championship at Turnberry marked the 20th anniversary of Els's infatuation, forged from the most bitter of 'first dates' at Royal Troon in 1989 when, having arrived on the Ayrshire coast as the youngest winner of the South African Amateur Championship, he sailed through the Open qualifying rounds at neighbouring Barassie. Disappointment, however, was just around the corner. "I'd grown up reading about Gary Player and the British Open. But I'd no idea everything would be so big. Everywhere I went there were thousands and thousands of people. I went to the practice tee and it was full. All the big guns were lined up - Norman, Ballesteros, Watson, Faldo. There was only one space, right beside Jack Nicklaus. He turned round and I said: `Hi, sir, how are you?' He said something like: 'No worries, play your own game. Good luck this week' and I said: 'Thank you very much'. He hadn't a clue who I was. I was so uptight and flustered by everything that was going on around me I shot 72 and 76 and caught the next flight home."
Although he languishes at 24th in the world, it would be foolish to write off the 'Big Easy' as he is known in locker rooms around the world for a swing as sweet as chocolate sauce and his affable manner. He has recently begun working with American golf guru Butch Harmon (who set Tiger Woods on the road to sporting immortality), having severed his long-term relationship with David Leadbetter, and few would begrudge him a return to the form of old; in victory or defeat, Els is the most gracious of superstars.
As evidence, I offer two cameos from Troon five summers ago, when Els lost a four-hole play-off with the unheralded American Todd Hamilton. As he was bending down to read the line of a birdie putt that would have taken the contest into sudden death, Els glanced up at Hamilton, making his way to his own ball after a near perfect approach, and took time out to comment: "Great shot." Seconds later and a beaten man, Els was ambling towards the scorers' hut when he passed Hamilton and his four-year-old daughter, Kaylee, enjoying a celebratory cuddle. A dad himself, almost without thinking Els ruffled the tot's hair in mid-stride. A simple gesture, perhaps, but how many other players would have been so considerate when the Claret Jug had just been denied them?