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South Africa’s much-loved Big Easy hits the big Five-0
LIFE begins at 40 is a saying we are all familiar with, but for Ernie Els it’s all about to begin (again) at 50.
Yes, South Africa’s much-loved Big Easy hits the big Five-0 on Thursday this week, after an illustrious career that had us golf-lovers – over the years – glued to our television sets into the early hours of a Monday morning as our man won yet another tournament in America.
Now a new chapter in Els’s life begins as he is eligible for the lucrative PGA Champions Tour where there are no cuts and the legends of the game still shoot the lights out and, as they say, “print their own money”.
Since turning professional a few days before his 20th birthday, Els has enjoyed 70 professionals worldwide wins, including four Majors and a staggering seven World Match Play titles which is a record. He is a former world No 1 and holds the European Tour record for most consecutive cuts (82) and the record for the most consecutive weeks in the world’s top 10 – 758 weeks. He has played over 100 Majors and is the only golfer to have more than 300 top 10 tournament finishes. Pretty special stats.
And Els might have won a good deal more Majors if it wasn’t for one Tiger Woods. In the year 2000, for instance, our man was runner-up in three straight Majors, to Vijay Singh in the Masters, and to Tiger both in the US Open and the Open Championship. I covered The Open that year in St Andrews, and spoke to Els afterwards where he finished on 277, while Woods demolished the Old Course in a record 269 strokes.
Ernie was moist-eyed, actually tearful. He felt he had played out of his socks, well enough for victory, and surely would have won had he not been destined to be competing in the same era as the great Tiger.
In any event, now the Champions Tour looms and he will make his debut in January when the 2020 season begins. His mother, and as we shall see mothers know these things, has something to say about this. Hettie Els predicted before the 1997 US Open at Congressional and the 2002 Open at Muirfield that Ernie would win. And of course he did. “I think it’s the same for all mothers,” she explains. “It’s that look on a child’s face, their body language, the way they talk. It’s that bond between a mother and a child. You just know.” So how does she feel her son will now do on the over-50s tour. “It’s a new beginning and Neels (her husband and Ernie’s dad) and I had a talk with him; like, is he going to enjoy it? Well, it seems he’s ready and looking forward to being there alongside Retief (Goosen) and his old friends from the regular tour. My mind is at ease and I think he’ll do well.” So, to repeat, mothers know.
I’ve had the privilege of reporting about Ernie since he was a young teenager, which reminds me of how Neels used to drop off his two golf-mad sons, Dirk and his young boet Ernie, at Kempton Park Golf Club or Germiston early in the morning during school holidays and leave them there to play all day. It was often so early that the gate was still locked and the young Els boys would have to wait for the manager to open up before eagerly heading for the first tee.
One day, after the usual early drop-off at Kempton Park, the sun had just gone down and it was almost completely dark when dad got back to the club to pick them up. But they weren’t waiting for him. So he asked in the clubhouse: “Does anyone know where I can find Dirkie and Ernie?” “Look out there, Neels,” he was told, “and through the gloom you might just be able to see them coming up the 18th.”
“They had raced around 18 holes four times in one day, carrying their own clubs, and playing against anyone who wanted some stiff competition,” Neels recalls. “That’s how committed they were and how much they loved the game. It all started then.”
And it hasn’t ended because the the Champions Tour lies in wait. But, in the meantime, our Ernie has a not-so-little matter to consider at Royal Melbourne in December where he will captain the International Team for the first time in the biennial Presidents Cup match against the United States.
By Grant Winter