It may have been 16 Major championships since Ernie Els last finished on top but, as Bill Elliott discovers, the Big Easy is not quite ready to retire to a life of empire-building and course design

The Big Man may be back in town but somehow you feel that his heart has yet to make the return trip with him. One way or another, for Ernie Els, these are strangely unsettling times.

As I write, he is coming up 37 years old, which is a good age to be unless you are a professional sportsman. Here, of course, golfers are a tad luckier than most. Make it over 37 in big-time football and you are hailed as a god-like freak; in tennis a late ?thirty-something? is already locked into the celeb sideshows; in cricket the lucky few have begun commentating.

Golf, however, can often embrace a man as he nestles alongside whatever is going to be his midlife crisis. Vijay Singh has hit the form of his life since turning 40 while Mark O?Meara famously won both his Majors the wrong side of the big four-oh. But what being 37 still means, even in the mink-lined world of professional golf, is that a man can hear the hooves of time bearing down on his unprotected back.

?Are you asking me if I feel old man?? grins Els as I lob the Serious Time Question in his direction. ?Because I feel okay you know. Not bad anyway.?

Still the doubts remain dancing in the summer air at Wentworth where he now has his main home. A place he may wander unmolested through the clubhouse and beyond and where the centre of his world ? his family ? waits to greet him when he returns from this campaign or that.

It has been some journey from South Africa. Mostly the times have been good but there have been a few bad. The car crash he survived at the end of his National Service still elicits a sombre tale as well as a vivid demonstration of how scarred and battered his left hand remains after being trapped between window and road. And then there was the bad moment in the middle of last summer.

A year ago Ernie was in his usual carefree state. On holiday with his wife and kids he was fooling around on a boat in the Mediterranean when he tried to turn his 6ft 3in frame. As his body swivelled his left leg stayed rooted to the spot and the pain dropped him like a stone. Just fooling about, Els had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament.

?When I started playing again I was amazed at how my brain wouldn?t let me get over on to my left side in the swing.?

Now, though the pain has gone, this trivially inspired but freakishly serious injury is threatening to end the really significant part of a career that has marked out this genial South African as a truly wonderful golfer, a winner of three Majors to date ? two US Opens and one Open.

?I had two ops on the knee, not one as some people think,? he said. ?Well, when I was doing the rehab and all that tough stuff I really wasn?t thinking that what had happened that day to my knee was anything close to career-threatening, that didn?t occur to me at all man. Not at all.

?But when I started playing again I was amazed at how my brain wouldn?t let me get over on to my left side in the swing. I was trying like hell to make that big move that is crucial in this game and my head wouldn?t let me. ?Do that and it will hurt? was the message from my brain and I have struggled to overcome it. It?s crazy man and it?s really frustrating me.?

This frustration shows at times even in a sportsman whose idea of a good time is a beer and a laugh. It shows in the uncertainty that flashes across his face and it showed in his restricted response to Tiger?s victory at Hoylake. Ernie Els has worked for what he has, for what he is, he has worked hard and looked after himself and he is not used to encountering a problem that will not bow to his stern will.

Games have always come easy to him. He was an outstanding young tennis, cricket and rugby prospect before golf overwhelmed the rest and by the time he hit scratch as a 14-year-old he knew what he wanted to do with his life. As a global golfer he is without peer, picking up the torch of travel from Gary Player and refusing to tie himself down to any particular circuit. His occasional spat with the US Tour, when they try to control and curtail him, does him much credit.

?I?ve enjoyed the travel, the different experiences. I respect other guys who want to stay in one country but that?s not for me. I suppose I like to be my own man and to see for myself what?s out there.? What is out there for now is a hard test of his ambition. Only a blind fool suffering a particularly stupid day would declare the end of a talent as sublime as Ernie?s but on the other hand, desperation does not sit easily alongside this man.

He admits that he has maybe ?five years left to continue competing at the top level? but he insists that he is ?in better shape than when I was in my twenties? and, of course, he believes that he is ?close to being really ready again?.

Those of us who have enjoyed not just his golf but his company over the last decade, hope he is making a careful judgement on all this rather than issuing an act of blind faith. Whatever the truth here, the indisputable fact is that the statistics tell a worrying story. In golf, stats can confuse as much as they illuminate but the really relevant one after you scrape all the bullshit aside is the category marked ?stroke average?.

?Basically I?m trying to take care of my future man. I?m building, or trying to build, my own little empire.”

His present average hovers around 70 shots per round, more than a stroke worse than a couple of years ago. This decline is close to terminal, for when a golfer adds four or more shots to his 72-hole total he drops from a contender to a top-20 man. Els never has been a top-20 man.

Perversely, life away from competition has never been better. Happily married and a doting father, he has launched a series of commercial enterprises that include his own wine label (?I?m not a winemaker, I?m a wine drinker but it?s good stuff?), a range of luxury leather goods, a clothing venture in alliance with Freddie Flintoff and, finally, his course design company that continues to impress.

When he was not sweating in rehab last year he was redesigning the West Course on the Wentworth Estate in Surrey and fiddling around with ?classy colours? for his clothes range. He says his inspiration for all this is Greg Norman, his hero when he was growing up as a Stellenbosch boy and a man whose move from golf star to business mogul never ceases to impress him.

?Basically I?m trying to take care of my future man,? he said. ?I?m building, or trying to build, my own little empire. Yeah, that?s a good way of putting it, a little empire. But I?ve got a lot of golf to play before that?s the central part of my life.?

It?s the big man?s misfortune to have been paired alongside Woods for much of his pro career. Until Tiger entered the scene it was Els who most of us felt was the outstanding player of his time. That this has affected Ernie is beyond doubt. He is generous in his praise of Woods ? a compliment that is sincerely returned by the world number one ? but he is also clearly disappointed that his rival has managed to stride so far ahead.

Such, however, is Ernie?s talent that even spluttering along he does better than the majority. Take his Major performances in 2006: 27th in the Masters, 26th in the US Open, third at our Open and then 16th in the USPGA. Not a bad record, but not the glittering monument that Els believes should be his by right.

After finishing the USPGA, Els watched Woods negotiate his considered way to a second successive Major title. Then, asked to reflect on his own effort, he said something that maybe was more revealing than he intended.

?The USPGA was a pretty low-key kind of week for me. You know, I played okay but nothing really happened. I tried to stay patient and to just be aggressive on certain holes. The result was I hit a lot of greens in regulation but sometimes when you do that you don?t make as many putts. Like I said, nothing really happened.?

That?s the problem really ? something needs to happen if the vineyards and the course designs and the clothing are not to become the core of Ernie?s professional life. And he is too good and too young for that to be the case.