Els is now a Hall of Famer, but he could have been better

ATLANTA -- The World Golf Hall of Fame has announced four of the five inductees for the class of 2011. Ernie Els leads the list of golfers inducted into the Hall, and he did so on his very first ballot. Also named: Doug Ford, winner of the 1955 PGA and the 1957 Masters, and Jock Hutchison, winner of the 1920 PGA and the 1921 British, among others.

Former president George H.W. Bush also earned enshrinement into the Hall. The second president to be inducted, after Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bush is a longtime supporter of the game of golf in all its many competitive and charitable forms. The fifth candidate, an international figure, will be announced at a later date. Leading candidates for that spot are Colin Montgomerie and Jumbo Ozaki.

Congratulations to all the winners; their honor is well-deserved. Now, let's drill down a little deeper and talk some hard golf numbers. You never take away anything from a first-ballot election, as Els received, but could it have been even better for him?

Put more directly: Do we judge a golfer purely on his numbers, or on his story as a whole?

By the second standard, Els is a legend, a humanitarian and a talent virtually unmatched in the game -- exactly the kind of golfer we should all admire. But by the first standard ... hey, let's be honest here: Strictly going on the basis of numbers, the man underachieved.

Els won his first major in 1994 at the U.S. Open, and followed that up with another U.S. Open in 1997. He dominated on both the U.S. and European tours for the next few years, culminating in a 2002 win at the British Open in Muirfield.

Since then, though, it's been desolate indeed, relatively speaking. Els went for almost a six-year stretch from 2004 to 2010 in which he won only a single PGA Tour tournament, the Honda Classic in 2008. For a guy who was on pace for double-digit majors, that's the equivalent of falling off the edge of the earth.

Should Els have won more? Here's a statistic: In the 20 majors held from 2000 to 2004, Els placed in the top 5 in 14 of them. And how many of those did he win? One. Again, taking nothing away from Els, but if this were, say, Phil Mickelson we were talking about, he'd be barbecued for those kinds of numbers.

Now, there are mitigating circumstances. Injuries took a heavy toll. Els' family life -- his son has autism -- has almost surely played into his lack of on-course success. Both are understandable, both put golf in its proper perspective and place in life.

But then there's the you-know-who factor. When Tiger Woods is stomping the field in major after major during what are supposed to be your prime years, you're going to come up a little short in where your career ought to be. Els, like Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, was born 10 years too late, or too soon. Like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing, all-time greats who never achieved an NBA championship because they had the misfortune of playing during the Michael Jordan era, the achievements of Els and the rest will always carry a what-might-have-been tinge.

Could Els have taken down some of those early 2000s majors had Tiger not been in the field? Put it this way -- Els finished second or T2 in three majors in 2000, and Woods won two of those. Els also finished third at the 2006 Open Championship and 2007 PGA, events which Woods would go on to win. Not saying that Els would have won those had Tiger not been present, but Tiger is a force unlike any other in golf, and the ripple effect is immediately visible on the stats of his competition.

There will be plenty of time to celebrate Els next year at the induction ceremonies. For now, I turn it over to you. Did Els underachieve? How do you judge a golfer, by his digits alone or by his entire story? Have your say, friends, have your say.