Ernie Els, one of South Africa’s finest sportspeople of all time, has played his 100th Major, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
This has been the year of the long goodbye for Ernie Els as he reached a remarkable milestone of 100 Major appearances at the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, some 28 years after teeing it up at a Major for the first time.
He could even have beaten his long-time rival and fellow Major champion Phil Mickelson to the landmark, but for the two occasions he has missed out over the past two decades and more. In 2005 the South African was forced to miss the PGA Championship after suffering a serious knee injury while on a sailing holiday in the Mediterranean, and in 2012 he didn’t receive an invite to The Masters because he had run out of exemptions.
How did he go about rectifying that? Well, a few months later he arrived at Royal Lytham & St Annes and won a fourth and final Major – his second Open Championship – and the five-year exemptions continued.
Now, as the curtain closed on the 2017 Major season, those exemptions have dried up. Never say never, but the 47-year-old might have to be content to be regarded as one of the elder statesmen on Tour, a jovial giant on and off the course, and a shrewd businessman who is continuing to build his empire around the globe.
His Major journey started in 1989 when he was a teenage amateur at The Open Championship, where he shot rounds of 72 and 76 to miss the cut by only two shots. Earlier that year the precocious amateur had finished fourth, on six-under 282, behind American Fred Wadsworth at the SA Open at Glendower. That year Els was allowed to win a maximum of R400 in prize money and his share was ‘donated’ to those other professionals around him on the final scoreboard.
‘Ja, I was a 19-year-old doing my national service,’ he recalls. ‘That week Errol van Zyl caddied for me and he’s a buddy to this day. The two of us had a lot of fun at Zwartkop Air Force base. The week after that we went to Phalaborwa and we had another top 10. Then I entered The Open qualifying, and with my brother Dirk caddying, made it on the nose.
‘I’ll never forget going to the range at Royal Troon. There was no space, but eventually I found a spot and put my bag down. When I looked up, I saw Jack Nicklaus on one side and Freddie Couples on the other. Jack was so nice. He glanced at this boy who must have looked like a frightened animal captured in headlights and wished me luck with a big smile on his face.
‘I missed the cut by two, but it gave me hope. It showed me that maybe I could do this. So we had a nice weekend in the pubs and then we flew home.’
It was a three-year wait before Els would tee up at a Major for a second time. By this stage he’d won the first of 16 Sunshine Tour events, beating Peter van der Riet at the Amatola Sun Classic, but he got his invite to Muirfield in 1992 after winning the 1991-92 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit and winning four events on the circuit in the process – the SA Open, SA PGA Championship, SA Masters and Royal Swazi Sun Classic.
In only the second Major that Els played, he shot rounds of 66, 69, 70, 74 to finish in a tie for fifth at Muirfield behind Nick Faldo at the 1992 Open Championship.
Those who hadn’t recognised him as a gifted teenage beanpole with blond hair and a wide smile three years earlier, were left in no doubt. There was a new kid on the tee box.
Things have come full circle. Now only a 20th win on the PGA Tour – the 47-year-old has a staggering 71 wins around the globe – will secure him another Major appearance. Or some intervention behind the scenes by those who make the rules in this great old game.
It’s something Els was coming to terms with as the widely popular South African teed up for the final time at the 2017 Masters, US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship.
‘This tournament was just not for me,’ he said of The Masters, after he propped up the field back in April, 20 over par. ‘I’ve won a lot of events around the world, but this one eluded me. And that’s fine. If I get back, great. It’s obviously not totally out of the picture. But if it is, it is. I have loved every minute of being here and I’ll come back somehow. Maybe just to have a couple of beers.’
Els first arrived at Augusta National in 1994 and tied for eighth, on two-under 286. ‘That was incredible to play with Ben Crenshaw, who was an absolute Masters specialist, and Jose Maria Olazabal, who was the champion that year,’ he said of his debut.
South Africa has had a good run at Augusta, with the great Gary Player being among those to win a Green Jacket – he famously broke with tradition and took his prize home with him – while Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel have also triumphed there in the past decade.
Els’ Masters peak came in a run from 2000 to 2004 with five consecutive placings in the top six, including runner- up finishes to Vijay Singh in 2000 and a heart-breaking one-stroke defeat to Phil Mickelson in 2004. He had posted the clubhouse lead with a blistering final-round 67, only to watch as Mickelson nailed a 20-footer on the last green to take the title when a playoff seemed certain.
Els teed up 23 times at Augusta, missing out in 2012 for the first time in 18 years for a shot at a Green Jacket when the treasured invite didn’t arrive. That was despite him already having 12 pairs of crystal goblets for making eagles during the tournament up to that stage, two crystal vases for having the low score of the round and two silver medals and silver trays for being runner-up.
Ironically, it was the arrival of Tiger Woods on the scene at the 1997 Masters that derailed Els’ drive to golfing greatness. ‘That Masters shook us all up. Everything was different after that,’ Els recalls of the time 20 years ago when the young Tiger blitzed Augusta and won by 12 shots, beginning his journey that would see him win 14 Majors before his personal life unravelled on that fateful November night in 2009.
‘Suddenly there was three times the media covering the game and huge crowds. It was a difficult setting in which to compete, and on top of that he was holing crazy shots every week. He really was a force and he dried up my Majors tally dramatically. When Tiger came around, I wasn’t that patient any more,’ Els admitted recently.
‘I’d been comfortable competing against Colin Montgomerie and everyone else, but Tiger had a little more power in his engine and suddenly I’d lost my control. Athletes are control freaks, and when things are not going your way, you’re anxious. Yes, I won some events when he was chasing me down, but it was a different environment.’
According to PGA.com stats, no golfer finished runner-up behind Woods more times than Els (five). ‘You could tell I’d lost my mind because I went to “Crazy Jos” [his “mind” coach, Vanstiphout]. But I played some of my best golf from 2002 until I blew my knee out in 2005. I should have won more Majors during that period.’
Still, 2017 has been one of reflection for the South African, who won two US Opens (1994 and 1997) and two Open Championships (2002 and 2012), and finished runner-up in four others.
At Erin Hills in June Els also played what was likely the last US Open of his career. ‘I like to move forward, but we are running out of time here,’ he said. ‘You do reflect a bit. When the guy introduces you as the 1994 and 1997 US Open champion you can’t help it … I was playing with a kid today who was just a baby [when Els won]. It would be nice to keep going, but if not, it’s also fine. I’ve had a good time.’
That sentiment continued through to the third Major of 2017 where he made the third successive cut of the year in a big one. He teed up at his 27th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
It was always going to be an emotionally-charged week, given that he holds The Open so close to him and won his first Claret Jug 15 years ago.
Recalling the moment it all got too close for comfort, Els said: ‘I managed to pull myself together.’ He had led the field by two strokes heading into the final round, but a 70 saw him slip into a four-man playoff with Thomas Levet and Australians Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington. ‘I’d been after the jug for 10 years,’ he said.
A decade later, Els won the last of his four Majors, coming through the field with a 68 to set the clubhouse lead at seven under, and then watch as his good friend Adam Scott imploded over the finishing holes with a 75.
Only Henry Cotton had taken longer to regain the Claret Jug than the 10 years it took Els. ‘Amazing, I’m still numb,’ he said at the time. ‘It’s crazy. I really feel for Scottie.’
Indeed, 22 July 2012 was a crazy day for South African sport. While Els was sipping the fruits of victory in Scotland, Team SA had arrived in London before the Olympics and some members were at The Oval. There they watched as Hashim Amla was hitting a career-best 311 for the Proteas against England.
Suddenly, there wasn’t enough space on the sports pages to describe the beauty of that Sunday.
Now, though, Els continues on the next step of a journey that has seen him become a South African institution, one of the great ambassadors this country has produced, and a man as down to earth and humble as he was when he arrived on the scene.
His work in Majors might be complete, but away from the cameras it’s not. Daughter Sam has turned 18, son Ben is nearly 15, and Ernie and his wife, Liezl, have been colossal in their drive to create awareness around autism and leave a lasting legacy for sufferers like Ben and millions of others.
Golfer extraordinaire Els might be, but he’s also one of this planet’s special people.
Now the curtain has closed on his Major career, and maybe it won’t open again. Overall, it’s been an experience that has brought so much joy to South African sports fans.
‘Twenty-five years of Majoring is quite something, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I won a bit and might have been the best player for a while, but I had my fair share of knocks. So, when I stop playing and look back, I’ll be able to say I loved the game so much I never let it go because of a few setbacks. One hundred Majors? What a good life lesson it has been.’
And that, perhaps, might be the understatement of the century.
BREAKING DOWN THE 100
Top 10: 35
– This article first appeared in the September issue of Compleat Golfer