Ernie Els was delighted to return to competitive golf on home soil as he rolled back the years to start with a 68 on a course he knows so well.
‘We were first out and there were already some people out there, obviously supporters of mine through thick and thin, and they grew a little bit as I made a couple of birdies,’ said Els.
‘It was really nice of the people to come out. There’s the odd funny comment here and there now that I’m 50, but I’ve had a good long run around this place, so it’s nice to see some of the fans come out.’
The 50-year-old is deep into preparations for captaining the International team at next month’s Presidents Cup and he also arrived at the seventh Rolex Series event of the 2019 Race to Dubai with a niggling hip injury.
But the four-time Major champion is a three-time winner of this event at the Gary Player Country Club and he showed all that class on Thursday.
‘Good memories came back to me today,’ he said. ‘I had a nice swing thought. I kind of just kept the ball in play, didn’t try and overpower it – not like I can overpower anything anymore. I just kind of plotted around the course and actually hit some good iron shots.
‘It could have been a little better but I’m pretty happy with 68.
‘I didn’t quite expect that. I haven’t played too much golf recently. I really came here with a plan to try and get a swing going, which I kind of did.
‘I just went on memory, going around the golf course where I used to hit the ball. Today was a good day.’
Els won Africa’s Major in 1999, 2000 and 2002 and is a member of an exclusive club of only four players – Els, David Frost, Nick Price and Lee Westwood – to have won the Nedbank Golf Challenge three times.
He still holds the record for the lowest tournament total in the history of the event, and which came with his first victory in 1999. His 25-under-par total that year improved by one shot the previous record of 24-under-par by Nick Price in 1993.
Then came a playoff victory over Westwood for his 2000 triumph, and an eight-shot victory in 2002.