No smooth sailing for Big Easy

The torn ligament Ernie Els suffered in his left knee last July has always been treated with the finest medical attention and a healthy dose of ambiguity. Consider the press release announcing the injury, which said Els shredded his ACL "whilst on a sailing holiday." This conjures visions of the Big Queasy tripping over a rope or, uh, going overboard with his best Gilligan impersonation.

Subsequent media reports would attempt to clarify the matter, and word soon spread that Els hurt himself whilst inner-tubing on the Mediterranean. There are worse ways to wipe out four months of your golf season, although the sailing hasn't gotten much smoother since.

Nearly a year after the surgery, mystery lingers. Els' knee is OK, but his game isn't, not by his uncompromising standards. His best finishes in 11 U.S. starts are a couple of T-7s (Miami, Hilton Head). He failed to factor at either major championship -- T-27 at The Masters, T-26 at the U.S. Open -- and has fallen from third to eighth in the World Ranking since last year's British Open.

"Mixed feelings," Els says of his '06. "It's good to be playing golf again, and maybe I appreciate my health more than I did before. On the other hand, the season hasn't gone as well as expected, and obviously that's frustrating. I just need to keep doing what I'm doing and be patient."

At Winged Foot, Els met for the first time with sports psychologist Bob Rotella in an attempt to resolve the putting woes that have stunted his comeback. It couldn't get any worse than during the second round of the BMW Championship in May, one of the premier events on the European Tour. Els hit 16 greens but shot 74 at Wentworth, a course he recently redesigned and is but a few hundred yards from his own bedroom.

Rotella suggested a simpler, less mechanical approach to the process. Els might have bought into putting in a pillbox hat. "See the hole and hit it," is how David Leadbetter, Els' longtime swing coach, interprets the session. "Ernie was standing over the ball a little too long. You don't want to give yourself too much time to think about it."

Time is something Els, 36, had in abundance after undergoing surgery last summer. It served as the topic of a conversation he had with Paul Azinger when the two men were paired during the third round of the Memorial last month. Azinger's successful battle against lymphoma in the mid-1990s makes him an ideal source on how to resurrect a career. "What he's wrestling with right now is how to get back into the rhythm of it all," Azinger says. "When you're away from the game that long, your work ethic changes."

All signs indicate Els has erred on the high side in terms of pushing himself. Always one of the game's more approachable superstars on the practice range, the Big Easy's demeanor has changed in '06. He's all business now, something he makes pretty clear up front. For years, his commitment to physical conditioning would come and go, but in rehabilitating the knee, Els never has been fitter.

So the only thing missing is a reward. "At some point you have to evaluate if you're working too hard or not working hard enough," Azinger adds. "It's tough sitting at home [injured] and enjoying the spoils of your success, and it's the first time you've ever been able to do that. It has to affect you. I told him my work ethic changed, and I think that resonated with him."

It must have. Els shot 81 the next day. "I kind of fell out of the bus there," he says of his final round at Muirfield Village, although Nick Price, who played with Els that afternoon, thought it was a pretty solid 81. "He hit it in a couple of bunkers and made some doubles," observes Price, who can find sunshine in the bottom of a gas tank. "His swing is as sound as it's ever been, and I've never seen him more motivated. But the difference between No. 3 or 4 in the world and 20th is that it takes a lot of hard work to keep your edge. I think he's gotten frustrated that it's taking him a bit longer."

That's the funny thing. Els' comeback couldn't have started much better. He returned to action in early December and won in his second start. So what if it was against a third-rate field in a South African Tour event? Still, it wasn't a true barometer, but in early February at the Dubai Desert Classic, Els rallied from a two-stroke deficit in the final round, holed a 6-footer on the 18th to force a playoff against Tiger Woods, then came up two yards short of land with his second shot at the same par 5.

It was a loss, a familiar result to a very familiar foe, but Dubai didn't require a pair of rose-colored glasses to see the upside. Els was back. Then he started going backward. He shot an opening 72 at Doral on a soft, unusually friendly Blue Monster, then rallied for a top-10. He started well at Bay Hill but played the final 54 holes in six over. In his four starts from the Players Championship through Wachovia, he broke 70 just twice -- in back-to-back rounds at Harbour Town.

"I'm close," he says. "Actually, I've been close for a while. You get a bit frustrated and push harder. That's when you make mistakes."

It's certainly worth noting that Els has never been a shoot-the-lights-out guy. His stellar career -- three major titles, 15 PGA Tour victories, 59 wins worldwide -- has been built on the ability to post a sequence of 68s on excellent courses, sometimes in difficult conditions, and wear down good fields with his nose for par and innate resourcefulness. He seems to own a reservoir of skills for any situation, which helps explain his six HSBC World Match Play titles at Wentworth. Few players in this era have done a better job of stepping on the accelerator or hitting the brake.

It might account for Els' mediocre performance in 2006. As Tiger Woods proved at Winged Foot, rust can be tough to detect, and just because it's gone one week doesn't mean it won't return the next. "His knee is about 90 percent, and the remaining 10 percent is in his mind," says Leadbetter, who spent two days working with Els in England last week. "The longer you go without getting into contention, the more you start to question yourself and your ability. You may not be very far off, but it can feel like it's miles away."

At the Memorial, Leadbetter noticed Els was still favoring the front leg slightly, coming out of shots at impact. This will cause problems for any golfer, but for a player with active hands through the ball, it requires immediate attention. "When he comes out of it, the club tends to lag, and he loses shots," Leadbetter says. Els might be right about his putting woes, but his ball-striking numbers are way off. Most alarming is his driving distance, which has dropped 6.6 yards since 2004, when he averaged 298 yards and ranked 19th on tour.

Els was 83rd in greens in regulation that year, hitting 65.6 percent. He's 148th in 2006, and the difference in the percentages amounts to almost three greens per week. His GIR rate from off the fairway is less than 45 percent, one of the worst on the tour. That's not good news when you're 148th in driving accuracy.

Still, he's Ernie Els, which means he turns a lot of 75s into 71s, if not a lot of 71s into 68s. Brad Faxon, who had the same surgery as Els last September, can relate to Els' plight. "My recovery didn't take that long, but my knee's still not perfect," Faxon says. "I don't stand over shots worrying about it, but there's a concern and a caution in the back of your mind." Faxon played for 18 months with his torn ACL, won last August in Hartford, then decided to get it fixed. "You certainly can play without an ACL," he says. "It's a number of other things you can't do."

What Els couldn't do was wait. He opted for surgery right away, his 2005 season having already turned into a bit of a mess. After a T-3, solo second and T-6 in the first three weeks, he seemed to wear down overnight, playing all over the world for the next three months but saving his poorest golf for America. His only top-10 after January was a share of seventh in Washington. He shot in the 60s once in 12 rounds at the majors.

That's what makes 2006 a bit more complicated than a slow return from knee surgery. As good as Els has been, as long as he's been good, he hasn't won a tournament in the United States in more than two years (2004 Memorial). He has claimed just one major title since the 1997 U.S. Open, a period filled with agonizing losses, playoff heartbreak and Sunday slides. There's a lot of mileage on the Big Easy, a lot of baggage. And no guaranteed seats on the return flight.

"He didn't touch a golf club for three months," says sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout, one of Els' mental pilots. "I don't believe in miracles, and for him to be back to the same level he was before he got hurt, that would be a miracle."

Actually, it is the same level. Just not the one at which we've grown accustomed to seeing Els perform. There comes a time in every career when the past, no longer relevant to the present, can cast illusions on one's perception of the future. "A lot of great players have gone through dry periods," Leadbetter says. "They get motivated by something, find a spark and step it up. We're so used to seeing Ernie in the mix and in contention, again and again. He's too talented not to make it all the way back, but when? I'm sure that's a question he's asked himself many times."

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine