The first time I met Ernie Els he was ordering a Castle in the room set aside for the press at Royal Johannesburg.
It’s not surprising then, that as he turns 50 and prepares to take the Champions Tour by the horns, my fondest memories of Ernie revolve around the demon drink.
There was the time, for example, when Ernie and a couple of friends were enjoying a hostelry in the Far East. As the clock ticked round to 11pm Liezl, Ernie’s wife to be, suggested that now might be a good time to go back to the hotel. He was, she pointed out, the defending champion and had a cut to make the following day. After some consultation, Ernie hailed a cab, paid the driver, put Liezl in the back seat, closed the door and went back to the pub.
Ernie won the first of his four Majors at Oakmont in June 1994 and from that point on, the boy from Kempton Park had to grow up rather rapidly. We didn’t see as much of him in this country any more, because his talent meant he was a citizen of the world. So it was with some surprise that I looked around from my seat in the Centurion Park press box in December 1994 to see a familiar figure sitting in the back row enjoying the cricket.
It was a good game; Dave Callaghan played the greatest innings of his career, 169 not out, South Africa got past 300 in the days when that was unheard of in 50-over cricket and then New Zealand were bowled out for 233. When stories had been filed, we kidnapped Ernie and took him to a pub across the road from the ground.
Amazingly, we were the only people there – six members of the Fourth Estate, the reigning US Open champion and the barman. Six rounds of drinks later we looked at Ernie, wondering if he might like to buy his round. He put his hand in his pocket, pulled out his wallet and out came a £10 note. He said: ‘Ag, sorry boys, these days I’ve always got the wrong currency.’
With The Presidents Cup around the corner and Ernie making his debut as captain, I am reminded of the drawn contest hosted by Fancourt in 2003. On the Friday night the US team were no-shows at a party hosted by Fancourt owner Hasso Plattner. It turned out that team captain Jack Nicklaus had organised a satellite feed to watch his old college team, Ohio State University, play football.
The International team came to the Plattner party, but then repaired to Ernie’s house around the corner from Fancourt in Herolds Bay. As the witching hour approached, Ernie made a phone call to the owner of the Herolds Bay Hotel and asked if there was anyone in.
‘No. We’re closed,’ came the reply.
‘You’re not closed any more,’ said Ernie, ‘I’m bringing a few of my chinas round.’
And so it was that the Internationals ended up playing pool and drinking brandy and Coke until the small hours of Saturday morning. They then went out, some a little unsteadily, to contest six fourball matches against a team that had had a quiet night in watching football. The result? Internationals 6, USA 0.
– This article first appeared in the October issue of Compleat Golfer, a tribute issue to The Big Easy