James Lawton: Open, charming and modest. It is easy to love Ernie Els
Published 24/07/2012 | 09:33
Leaving aside an extremely irate Sir Vivian Richards, Ernie Els is the only world-class sportsman who introduced himself – rather than the other way around – to this inhabitant of the sometimes jaded vineyard of sports writing.
It happened many years ago at Wimbledon – Els as a young giant in South Africa was an extremely accomplished tennis player and a formidable prospect on the rugby field – but on this occasion he was wielding a foaming glass of warm beer rather than the racket he might well have employed as gracefully as the driver which has shone so beautifully down all the good years and the bad.
The main reason for mentioning this first collision with the new Open champion, who at 42 now has four major title wins, is its corroboration of the belief that much faith should always be placed in first impressions.
Most striking in this towering, amiable young man, about whom it was already being said he might prove one of the great golfers, was an openness and modesty and charm which in the dusk of Royal Lytham on Sunday night remained utterly intact. Or, according to another view, that of Wayne Grady, the Australian pro and former PGA major title winner who has more recently been winning some new fans for his sometimes acerbic analysis for BBC TV, perhaps miraculously restored.
Els has made no secret of the fact that in the last few years of dwindling form and ranking he has often been less than The Big Easy in his attitude to both himself and the wider world – and Grady, as usual, had no time for euphemism when the South African gathered in the Claret Jug that Adam Scott so agonisingly let slip away on the 18th green.
Grady told the nation: "Els was in the doldrums for a while and wasn't a pleasant person to speak to. He said he had to make certain decisions to get back and he's done it." No doubt some of the staff at Wentworth golf course, who were lambasted by Els for what he considered their poor preparation for the PGA tournament there earlier this year, were inclined to agree with the Grady evidence. The big man, very unusually in a public situation, had laced his criticism with expletives.
However, he did apologise quickly enough and sent a substantial donation to the charity of the European Tour's choice, which was the kind of mea culpa not exactly commonplace in the upper echelons of the game, and which when you consider the number of times Tiger Woods volleys the clubs and the curses must be a source of great regret to organisations like the Red Cross.
Els may not, indeed, have been consistently philosophical in the worst of times which set in around the middle of the last decade but the redemption of his spirit, and the best of his nature, at least it seems to this witness, has never been too far away.
Certainly, it was evident enough in his moment of unexpected glory on Sunday. His compassion for the stricken Scott was palpably genuine and so was the tribute to Nelson Mandela, under whose apartheid-free presidency Els just happened to deliver the country's first major sports title, the US Open.
His handling of the family crisis which came with his son's diagnosis of autism has always been conspicuously committed, not least in prodigious fund-raising for a charity foundation set up to help families deal with the condition.
It also has to be said that whatever sense of encircling darkness Els experienced both on and off the golf course it did nothing to diminish the warmth of regard he continued to enjoy among the majority of golf fans.
Long after they sighed and consigned The Big Easy and his three majors to the category of what might have been, they continued to marvel at the casual elegance of his swing and yearn for a day when the glory of his game might return in some force.
There was some evidence of resurrected strength at the US Open last month, when he finished in ninth place after some bursts of gathering promise, and if he was the first to admit that his second Open title would probably always be remembered as a gift from the suddenly besieged Scott, this did little to obscure the fact that for four days he had put together some of his best and most creative golf in years.
Whether or not this is a signal for some resumed productivity in the major title market – we shouldn't forget that Jack Nicklaus was four years his senior at 46 when he won the last of his Augusta Green Jackets – it is too early to say. What can be celebrated, though, without too much complication, is the restored self-belief of a man who over the years has contributed so hugely to the aesthetic satisfaction of watching his game.
Another of the more memorable meetings with Els came at the ropes of an Augusta fairway in 2005, when a pattern of decline was beginning to develop. It was on the third day, when he was among the early starters after barely surviving the cut. He was curious to know why one had elected to form possibly the smallest gallery on the course. It was explained that it was a beautiful morning for a stroll and one hardly marred by the company of his swing.