WHEN ERNIE GOT GRAND-SLAMMED!
This week, exactly 20 years ago at St Andrews, a 30-year-old Ernie Els was trying hard to fight back the tears after he had holed his final putt for a 69 and a 277 total in that year’s Open Championship. I was covering the event for Independent Newspapers and Ernie asked me to join him on the short ride back to the Old Course Hotel where he was staying.
“Maybe I’m just living in the wrong era,” he lamented, moist-eyed, referring to the fact that Tiger Woods who was playing behind him was just about to complete victory, also following a 69, for a 269 aggregate – a record return for an Open Championship at the Home of Golf. That meant Els was joint second with Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, eight shots behind the American. “I’m hitting the ball like a champion, I’m thinking like a winner and it’s doubtful that my game has ever been this good,” our boy said. “I’m doing just great on the ‘regular’ tour but Tiger’s on his own damn tour – a cut above the rest of us. I’m fascinated by his exploits and full of admiration for him.
But I’m also frustrated because I want to bridge the gap. I believe that when I’m at my best, I can stay with him. But here at St Andrews he was unstoppable.”
The runner-up finish was the Big Easy’s third second place on the trot in the Majors in 2000, as Vijay Singh edged him out in the Masters, and in the US Open at Pebble Beach, Woods – with a 272 total – won by a mammoth 15 shots from Ernie and Miguel Angel Jimenez. A month later at St Andrews, Tiger’s win, at the age of just 24, made him only the fifth player in history after Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus and Player to complete the Grand Slam. A headline in one newspaper – “Els gets Grand Slammed!” – said it all after Wood’s Slam and Els’ three straight runner-up finish in the Majors.
Ernie’s disappointments in the Majors aside, the year 2000 wasn’t exactly a bad year for him. The very week before The Open I saw him win, in grand style, the European Tour’s Loch Lomond Invitational from Tom Lehman, and just 14 days after St Andrews he outgunned Phil Mickelson to seal victory in The International at Castle Pines on the PGA Tour. Then at home early in December, Els for the second straight year won the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City after a play-off with Lee Westwood after the pair had tied on 20-under-par 268.
And two years after St Andrews, I was privileged to be inside the ropes as Ernie captured the 2002 Open at Muirfield. And for once, Woods was nowhere in the race for that coveted Claret Jug!
Written by Randpark Member Grant Winter.