Ernie Els emerges from ‘deep, dark hole’ to move into Omega Dubai Desert Classic contention

From the depths of despair to the top of the leaderboard at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. That has been the transformative journey undertaken by Ernie Els.

Ernie Els shot a five under par 67 to co-lead the Omega Dubai Desert Classic after two rounds. Warren Little / Getty Images
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DUBAI // From the depths of despair to the top of the leaderboard at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

That has been the transformative journey undertaken by Ernie Els, the four-time major champion whose problems with the putter have provided some sizeable recent lament.

Such was his distress, in fact, that Els even considered never getting his game back.

“I’ve been in some holes, but this one was a pretty deep, dark one,” he said. “To get out of this one was quite nice.”

Quite the understatement. But then the relief was tangible after Els signed for a second-round 67 at Emirates Golf Club on Friday, a blemish-free score that elevated a former front-runner on the Majlis into an early tournament lead alongside Danny Willett.

“It’s quite nice,” Els said, again. “A bit surprising.”

The speed of the renaissance has shocked a little, too. Els’s nadir came at the South African Open last month, when a putt for par during his first round sailed past the hole from 18 inches. It never even threatened the cup. Worryingly, it mirrored one at October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

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But Els finally listened to those closest to him and resolved to change. His putting grip became left-hand-low, effectively taking out of play his “jittery right”, and he is clearly reaping the rewards.

“I’m falling in love on the greens again,” he said. “I’m not dreading the greens. That’s where I’ve been for the last two or three years since I won the Open Championship. I feel very different. I feel like, you know, I don’t mind making a 2-footer or a 4-footer.”

For some time, it was the exact opposite. Els is one of the finest players of his generation, with 70 professional victories, but at age 46 and without a win since the 2013 BMW Championship, he struggled getting the ball in the hole and consequently confronted inner demons, as well.

Exorcised in South Africa, Els has found redemption.

“The game puts you through some journeys and I’ve been through many,” he said. “When you’ve played the game long enough you’re going to find some obstacles.”

But as tough as this?

“Not as bad as this one, that was really bad,” Els added. “When you can’t make … you saw some of those putts, that’s just end-of-career stuff. I just want to enjoy it again. That’s what I said to my wife: I just want to enjoy it, I don’t care if I never win again. I need to enjoy it, otherwise might as well do something else.”

Read more: Five players set to rival McIlroy and Stenson for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title

No need for a career change just yet, though. Els is back in contention, at an event in which he already shares a strong affinity with. The Desert Classic’s only three-time winner, and with another nine top-three finishes to boot, he is in fine position to stretch that to four.

Should that happen, he will particularly revel in celebrations with Colin Byrne and Ricci Roberts, past and present caddies and constant confidants.

“The poor guys went through the mill with me,” Els said. “We really didn’t think we’d be where we are now. I’m looking forward to seeing a smile on their faces also. We’ve all just been like ‘oh my god’.”

The gratitude would be extended to the wider Els network, who rallied around the giant South African as his confidence plummeted and his world ranking followed suit.

“Still the same group,” said Els, now placed at No 205. “Still my immediate family: mum, dad, my wife. The immediate people who’ve always been there, with me when I’m winning and the same people pulling me out of these circumstances. A really great support group, really great people.”

Els is doing them proud this week. His Friday included three birdies and an eagle, on 18, the same hole that a day before had coaxed his only bogey thus far. Much like his putting, and by extension his game, a complete reversal of form aided not just his score, but also his mood.

“It’s been a while. I won the BMW in Munich and that’s a couple years ago, but in the last year, I haven’t felt like this. It’s an about-turn for me from where I was and it’s a nice feeling to have.

“I was really nowhere and now I feel like I’ve got some game.”

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