Ernie Els is one of those rare athletes who became a champion while somehow remaining a favorite of the people, a guy who never seems to draw criticism or disdain. You want Ernie to do well and when he doesn't, you ache for him.
Case in point: Sunday afternoon at the Transitions when Els, who had held a share of the lead for much of the afternoon, went bogey-bogey to finish his round one stroke out of a playoff. His round ended in the cruelest possible fashion: a missed 4-foot putt that he simply pulled wide.
Els consented to a post-round interview with NBC/Golf Channel's Steve Sands, and it was surely one of the most awkward and painful interviews in recent memory because of the look of utter shock on Els' face. Twenty minutes before -- hell, two minutes before -- he was preparing for a playoff and a possible win that would have punched his ticket to the Masters, and now ... nothing.
Here's the sum total of the interview:
Q. Very disappointed, Ernie Els; what happened after that drive on the 18th hole?
Els: What happened? Well, I pulled my second left and I chipped it up there. Didn't have a great lie on my third shot and I pulled my putt.
Q. Did you have the confidence to make that putt before there?
Els: Yeah, I guess so. I just pulled it a bit.
Sands pulled the plug on the interview right then, leaving Els utterly alone to face the camera's eye.
Reaction on Twitter was instantaneous and stridently anti-Sands, by about a 10-1 margin. Comments included "brutal, awkward, lame," "one of the worst interviews I've heard in a long time," "just raised the bar for stupid questions," and "more painful than my ruptured appendix during 5th grade winter break."
Even tour golfers piled on. Steve Elkington said that Steve Sands "goes Jim Gray" (a reference to Gray's infamous 1999 skewering of Pete Rose) and "time will tell if it's career ending."
"Not sure that was a great interview with Ernie Els after the round," Ian Poulter added. "That question was a bit short and stuck in like a dagger. Not cool."
Here's the thing: As losers' interviews go, it wasn't that bad. These things are usually generally devoid of serious content and never pretty, and anytime a guy who's had his soul ripped from his chest can get through one of these without totally falling to pieces or going bug-eyed crazy with rage, you count it as a win. You're not interested in what the loser says, but how he says it.
You can debate whether networks should even air interviews with the losers at all, but I'm firmly in favor of it, and here's why: Sports is a release. Yes, it's entertainment, a diversion, no matter how much we all want to make it more than that.
But sports also are a metaphor. Without getting too purple with the prose here, sports allow us to consider how we'd handle ourselves in defeat as well as victory. Would we throw clubs, scream at everyone around us, shove the microphone back in Sands' face? Or would we do as Els did, handling ourselves with grace and class in what has to be one of his most professionally devastating moments in his career?
And let's go a little easy on Sands, too. Sure, the first question was painfully obvious and the second question was a bit of a bailout, but interviewing the loser is among the worst jobs in sports media. Nobody wants to do it, but it's part of the essential narrative.
Plus, lest we forget, this is part of the bargain for both players and media. The perks (fat paychecks for the players, best-seats-in-the-house for the media, fine working conditions for both) come with a price.
Some days, life isn't all green jackets and magnolias. We keep that in mind because it makes those moments of victory that much sweeter.