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Published: Sunday, 6/3/2007

Els has name, tries to find game

DUBLIN, Ohio - He has long had the best nickname in golf, at least since The Squire or Slammin' Sammy or the Merry Mex.

The Big Easy. Yes, golf's best nickname.

Granted, that doesn't make the player. But Ernie Els also had golf's best swing, which goes a long way toward making the player.

Slow, almost lazy, but rhythmic and powerful. When Els won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994 at 24, some suggested he might win a major a year for the next decade or two.

Look out, Mr. Nicklaus!

Of course, it hasn't happened. Els won the Open again in 1997 at Congressional and captured the British Open in 2002 at Muirfield in Scotland.

Three majors is nothing at which to sneeze. It's pretty good stuff. But it isn't one a year for the next decade or two.

What happened to Ernie Els?

Well, Tiger Woods happened, for one. Tiger won his first major in '97 and has added another 11, so that doesn't leave a whole lot for everybody else.

And, to be fair, Els hasn't exactly disappeared. He was on the putting green tuning up for a playoff at the '04 Masters before Phil Mickelson made his dramatic, winning putt on the 72nd hole. And he lost in a playoff later that year at Royal Troon, where a relative unknown, Todd Hamilton, beat him with four pars in the British Open playoff.

A more staggering fact is that Els has not won on U.S. soil since 2004, when the Memorial here at Muirfield Village was one of three victories.

Of course, you have to erase the second half of the '05 season after Els, on vacation the week after the British Open, suffered a jet ski accident in the Mediterranean that resulted in a torn left knee ligament.

It has been up and down, hit and miss since then.

Last week, in the European PGA Championship, Els had a round that included two eagles, four birdies, seven pars, three bogeys, one double-bogey and a triple-bogey that added up to even-par 72.

That is golf's version of the Wicked Twister at Cedar Point.

In the aftermath, Els has become the latest golfer to switch to a cross-handed putting stroke.

"I've had a pretty tough time for the most part of this year," he said. "I've been very uncomfortable, especially on the greens. I've just been very frustrated."

The cross-handed approach allows the left hand to pull the putter through the ball as opposed to the right hand pushing it through as with a conventional grip. Advocates say it creates a more accurate path.

"It was a tough decision to make," Els said. "You know, when you've putted the conventional way all your life and been a pretty good putter, it's hard to go the other way."

Els could never have imagined having to make that decision in '94, when his Open triumph was fashioned around his nailing about every key putt he looked at, especially during a Monday playoff against Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts.

If not for the putter, "I could have shot about anything that day," recalled Els, who showed promise with his 6-under par 66 start here at Muirfield Village. He has followed with rounds of 75-71 and stands at 4-under.

"I'm looking forward to getting back there," Els said.

He was talking about Oakmont, where the 2007 U.S. Open will be played June 14-17.

He might have been talking about rediscovering a game with which he can win.

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