Ernie Els didn’t fail, he prevailed

ernie_11I couldn’t watch it. A tweet showed up yesterday afternoon declaring that Ernie Els had seven-putted (later downgraded to six putts) the first hole at Augusta National. I re-tweeted it but I would not watch the video.

I felt so bad for him. (The Golf Channel replayed it like CNN constantly replays videos of disasters caused by hurricanes and bombs, so I eventually saw it.)

It was a yipper’s disaster. The nightmare realized. The South African veteran has been struggling with the yips, and Augusta National’s slick greens strike fear in yippers’ hearts.

Afterwards, a lot of people wondered how Els kept going. Remarkably, he played the next 15 holes in one-over par. And after the round, he stopped twice to talk to media for as long as it was required, and then he signed autographs for fans.

The word courageous is thrown around a lot in sports, but I think that yesterday we watched a courageous man exhibit strength of character that is worth cheering from the rooftops. If you’re looking for someone to learn from, put Ernie Els near the top of your list.

Consider the moment, and what thoughts and feelings must have been exploding in Els’ head as he missed and missed until in exasperation, he appeared to give up and played hockey with it until it was over. Who could have blamed him?

And consider that the Master is the world’s most famous tournament, and every highlight and lowlight (AKA “fail”) is instantly distributed around the world today.

It’s a great learning piece. Namely, how you handle such a die-a-thousand-deaths moments, whether it’s in front of three people or millions?

I believe these are among life’s greatest tests; we learn what we’re really made of, and who we are. As a friend of mine says, “I never learned anything on a good day.” At these times our true character is revealed.

And in this moment, Ernie Els confirmed what many have long thought of him—that he is a graceful, grounded and vulnerable man. He’s won 70 tournaments around the world but whether he wins or falls short, Els reveals what he’s thinking and feeling; he exposes himself as fully as any athlete I’ve ever seen. (I covered his 1994 U.S. Open win and seven Masters as a golf journalist.)

Obviously, I couldn’t possibly know how he kept going—he admitted that he didn’t know either—and ultimately, or how he played pretty well for the rest of the way around, but I’ve got a hunch.

My best guess is that while Els felt terribly embarrassed and shaken, he didn’t identify himself with what happened. It was awful and humiliating, sure, but it wasn’t threatening. Yes, the yips are threatening his career. I hope not and I doubt it.

That’s not my point. My point is that his identity was not threatened. My sense is that at an instinctual level, Els knows that no matter how bad his putting may be, it does not change who he is. Ernie Els is a good and worthwhile human being no matter what happens to him on a golf course. His self-worth does not soar or dive based on his score and how many putts he sinks.

Consider how you talk to yourself after an on-course disaster. What names do you call yourself? If you’ve choked to lose a tournament, or blown shooting a career score, how do you feel about yourself? Are you a good person if you shoot, say, 79 but a bad person if you shoot 89?

My sense is that no matter what happens on the golf course, it does not define Ernie Els. At his core, he is unchanged. He remains a loving father and partner, a good son, and responsible world citizen. He is Ernie. Not Ernie the yipster, Ernie the failure, or even Ernie the four-time major champion.

As golfers, there’s all kinds of different ways to look at this—practising acceptance or playing with indifference—but I believe this is less about learning skills, and more about developing character.

It’s a profound knowing that whatever happens in life, your core self is untouchable. Your inner brilliance cannot be affected by anything that happens to you, even if it’s self-inflicted.

You are not defined by your grades, scores, the car you drive, the house you live in, the job you have, the partner you have, or your ability putt a ball into a hole.

You are you, and you are worth protecting and celebrating no matter what.





About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!