The Internationals captain for the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne talks candidly about his career – the major wins and losses, the impact of Tiger Woods, his charity work, the distance debate and the belief he has in winning again before he turns 50.
What’s driving you on these days? You’re still playing a lot of golf.
I don’t want to let go. Once you do that it is really tough to come back. I haven’t played very well for a while. But I’m a bit more healthy than I was a few months ago, so I will play a full schedule in 2018. I want to see if I can still get a win out of this thing.
You’re at that awkward age aren’t you? It’s tough to stay competitive on the regular Tour when you’re in your late 40s. And you are a little too young for senior’s golf.
That’s right. It is an awkward age (laughs). It’s a bit like no-man’s land between 45 and 50. It is so hard to keep up with the young boys. But I don’t want to let my game go. As I said, I don’t want to get to 50 and have to work really hard to get to the level I would need to compete on the Champions Tour.
You still hit it far enough don’t you?
I do. I can still get it out there enough that I’m not miles behind. But take today (the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic). I made six birdies out there, which is good. But the bogies were sloppy. There was a three-putt. There was a silly three from the edge. Very soft stuff. That’s the sort of stuff I have to clean up. If I do, I think I can still compete at the highest level.
RIGHT: Els endured a putting nightmare at Augusta National last year. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Having said that, the likes of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are playing a different course than most of the other players.
Yeah. They play the sort of game I used to play when I was in my prime. I was able to dominate fields and courses. But that’s not quite happening any more, which is the frustrating part of the game for me right now. I know what I could do. But I’m not quite the same player now. Having said that, I’m not chopped meat yet either (laughs). Which is why I’m still keen to see what I can get out of the game.
It’s all about confidence really. If I can get some of that going, I’ll be able to compete more. I’m getting there too. My putting has turned around.
I was going to ask you about that. We all saw what happened to you on the first green at Augusta (five putts from short range) a couple of years ago.
Exactly. But I’ve come back from that, which is amazing really. I was really nowhere back then. I had a huge fear of short putts. I’m not sure I quite had the yips, but there was a lot of anxiety.
What did it feel like?
I was just totally out of control. I was panicking.
It was horrible to watch.
Yeah. I was like, ‘get me out of here.’ It was a total brain freeze. So I had to work hard to get to where I am now. The centre-shaft putter I have now has really helped. It stands up. I can see exactly where I am aiming. And it feels much more relaxed. It has really come around nicely.
Did you make technical changes to fix the mental problems?
I did. I went left hand low. But the bottom line was that I spent so much time on my putting that my long game suffered. Then I had some injuries last year. That all slowed me up a bit, which was frustrating.
You must have feared the worst after Augusta.
I did. Definitely. But I didn’t want to end it that way. I have so much love for the game. It has given so much. So I couldn’t leave like that. But it took a lot of work and lots of determination to get around what I was feeling. Now it is just a case of putting my whole game together. If I do that, I can really get something out of the next few months.
I remember reading an article about Bobby Jones. He was on the putting green at Augusta with some friends. They were watching him and asking what he was doing. He had the heebie-jeebies too. He could barely get around the course. So that sort of thing is no respecter of anyone, not even the greatest players.