There was a time when Tiger Woods was on his way to challenge Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer of all time. Yet, at the same time, Ernie Els challenged Woods for the world number one ranking, and even held it for short periods of time. Known as “the Big Easy”, he followed the legendary Gary Player as a South African golfing great.
While Els hasn’t managed to match Player’s success in majors – few people have – he has won the World Matchplay Championship, a one-on-one challenge, more times than anyone else. In fact, the man whose record he superceded is Gary Player. Els has seven victories to his name and Player five.
While Els emulated Player’s success in matchplay, his career, for a long time, was similar in terms of there being a “Big Three” in the game. In Player’s day it was the South African maestro and the Americans Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. At the height of Els’ career, it was the SA star and the Americans Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Sadly, injury saw the consistency of Els’ game drop a notch or two after he underwent reconstructive knee surgery in 2005. Yet, that did not stop him winning titles and defeating the world’s best players. In 2012, he proved he was far from finished by lifting The Open Championship title at at Royal Lytham and Saint Annes.
There is another reason, not as well known, which explains why Els has not remained as consistent a title challenger in the latter stages of his career, but it is an admirable one.
In 2008, he revealed that his son Ben suffers from autism, a brain development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Little known is that autism statistics released in 2012 revealed it affects one in 91 people!
Using his public profile, Els has tried to teach people about autism and his primary focus has shifted from golf to learning about autism and trying to find the cause of it.
Not only has he moved to the USA, where special schools for austistic children are available, but Els has set up the Els for Autism Foundation which is aimed at funding the building and running of a research centre at the Scripps Institute in Florida, USA.
A campaign to raise $30-million of capital, after which the Center will be able to fund its ongoing operations, is on the go. The Els family has already contributed over $6-million alone.
The inaugural Els for Autism Pro-Am took place in April 2009 and drew an astonishing line-up of players – testament to Els’ standing in the game – that included Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Tim Clark, Richard Sterne, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby, and Jeev Milkha Singh among others.
Apart from his support of research into autism, Els has also given back to golf through his Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation.
It was founded in 1999 and, according to its website, it was “with the purpose of identifying and assisting young individuals from families of limited resources who show promise in the game of golf. “It serves to provide these individuals with educational assistance and opportunities to play, and in so doing create an environment where not only their playing ability could be developed to its full potential, but they could be encouraged to become successful young leaders.”
Major winners Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen are products of the Foundation, as is Branden Grace,a four-time winner on the PGA European Tour in 2012.
While Els’ focus has shifted somewhat from being solely focused on golf, his Open Championship title in 2012 showed that his skills need to be respected. They have not eroded.
He has enjoyed an exceptionally successful career. It has included four major titles: the US Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open Championship in 2002 and 2012.
His professional career began in 1989, which was the same year in which he won the South African Amateur Stroke Play Championship.
He achieved his first professional win in 1991 in the Amatola Classic, but it was in 1992 that Els found the success that had long been expected and awaited. When it came, it came in buckets. In an astonishing run of victories, he won six times on the Sunshine Tour, including the South African Open, the South African PGA Championship and the South African Masters.
His achievement in winning South Africa’s three biggest events matched that of South Africa’s Sportsman of the Twentieth Century, Gary Player, one of the all-time greats of the game, which made it clear that Els was a special talent.
The following year, 1993, Els scored his first win on foreign soil, capturing the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.
First major victory
A year after that he hit the big time when he captured the US Open. Instead of the regulation 72 holes, he played 92 holes after he finished tied for the lead with Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie, then tied with Roberts over an 18-hole playoff, before winning on the second hole of a sudden death playoff.
Ernie Els had arrived and another win on American soil, in the first Sarazen World Open, which included a tournament record of 30 over nine holes, confirmed this.
The Big Easy also showed that he was happy to demonstrate his skills anywhere in the world. Competing on the PGA European Tour, he captured the 1994 Dubai Desert Classic title. His winning effort included a stunning round of 61 that included 12 birdies. Els’ willingness to compete anywhere in the world was to become one of his trademarks.
A victory in the World Matchplay Championship further enhanced the South African’s status as one of the world’s leading golfers; one-on-one there is nowhere to hide. Only two results are possible: win or lose, and Els, since his first win, had acquired a remarkable winning habit.
World Matchplay titles
He has gone on to demonstrate his brilliance in the world’s foremost one-on-one showdown over the years, providing ample evidence of his status as one of the leading golfers of his generation. Els won the World Matchplay title in 1994, 1995, 1996, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2007. He finished as runner-up in 1997.
His feat of winning the title three years in succession – something he has managed twice – is unmatched.
Apart from victories on the PGA Tour and Sunshine Tour in 1996, Els also recorded one of his career highlights when he teamed up with Wayne Westner to win the World Cup of Golf at Erinvale in South Africa by a record 18 strokes. He and Westner dominated the event, finishing first and second in individual scoring.
In 2001, Els and Retief Goosen lifted the title for South Africa again, winning in Gotemba, Japan.
When the Big Easy’s captured a second US Open victory in 1997, he became the first foreign player since Alex Smith (1906, 1910) to win the tournament twice.
Alfred Dunhill Cup
Els once again flew the flag for South Africa when he was part of the team that lifted the Alfred Dunhill Cup at Saint Andrew’s in 1997 and 1998.
In 1998, he was one of the stars of the Rest of the World’s huge victory of 20½-11½ over the USA in the Presidents Cup. It was the worst defeat ever suffered by the Americans.
As one of the most consistent players on the very competitive PGA Tour, Els enjoyed a superb run during which he won at least one event on the Tour from 1994 to 2000. His lack of a title in the USA in 2001 was offset by the aforementioned victory with Retief Goosen in the World Cup.
Els then won titles in America from 2002 to 2004. His wins in 2002 included his third major title, The Open Championship, which he captured at Muirfield.
Apart from his major victories, he has finished as a runner-up five times.
PGA European Tour successes
While the Big Easy was one of the leading lights on the PGA Tour for the decade from 1994 to 2004, he was still active in other parts of the world and was one of the PGA European Tour’s leading players. In fact, Els topped the European Tour’s Order of Merit in 2004 and 2005. He was second in 2007 and third in 2000 and 2002.
His titles on the European Tour include victories in diverse surroundings, such as South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, China, Switzerland, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
The Nedbank Challenge
During his career, Els has also been a loyal supporter of the Nedbank Challenge, played annually towards the end of the year at the Gary Player Country Club at Sun City.
He has appeared more times than anyone else. Not surprisingly, he is also a runaway leader in the all-time money list for the tournament.
Els holds the tournament record for the lowest winning score, an astounding 25-under-par total of 263 – comprising rounds of 67, 66, 64, and 66 – in 1999. He finished on 21-under-par in 2002 and 20-under in 2000. He won the tournament in all three of those years.
Knee surgery in 2005 affected his play. He was no longer as consistent and dominant as he had been, but he continued to win, picking up titles in the USA, in Europe, Asia and South Africa.
He enjoyed a particularly good year in 2010, recording back-to-back victories in the World Golf Championships-CA Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational to underline his status as one of the golfing world’s leading lights.
Later in the year, he lifted the WGC Bridgestone Invitational title and claimed the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. He rounded out the year by winning the South African Open for a fifth time.
By October 2010, he had won four major championships, 19 titles on the PGA Tour (including majors), 27 titles on the European Tour (including majors), 16 titles on the Sunshine Tour, one title on the Japan Golf Tour, as well as 14 other victories, including in the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the World Match Play Championship.
Apart from his fine achievements on golf courses around the world, Els has also become a sought-after golf course designer. He has designed courses in South Africa, the USA, China, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas, Bahrain, and Hawaii.
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