The Big Dog

At age 24, U.S. Open champ Ernie Els of South Africa is hailed as golf's future best in show
August 07, 1994

Curtis Strange anointed Ernie Els the "next god" of golf. Gary Player compared Els's swing to Sam Snead's. Nick Price said the last boy wonder with this kind of talent was Seve Ballesteros. Arnold Palmer observed in Els many of the same "I'll show you" qualities that he once saw in himself. The consensus: This kid is something Els.

"Ernie is one of the brightest talents we have in world golf," said Bernhard Langer, a man not known to be overgenerous with his praise. "He has a great build, he hits the ball a tremendous distance, he has good rhythm and he does not get upset. Basically he has it all."

All those plaudits were heaped on the young South African's broad shoulders before he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in June.

Els is only the fifth player since World War II to win a major championship before turning 25. Ballesteros, who was 22 when he won the 1979 British Open, won four more majors before hitting the wall at age 32. Player was 23 when he won the '59 British, his first of nine majors. Jack Nicklaus won three of his 18 majors before he turned 25. In this pre-Els four-some, only Jerry Pate, who won the U.S. Open at 22, has not won another major.

Els, 24, appears to have all the physical and mental attributes needed to become golf's next dominant player. And he seems savvy enough to handle the acclaim and balance the demands. "He's got his head screwed on right," Price says. "He'll figure it out."

Els learned quickly after his grueling playoff victory over Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie that the price of being an Open champion is the loss of both innocence and privacy. He could no longer walk into a pub unnoticed or take his girlfriend, Leizl Wehmeyer, to a movie without being hounded for autographs.

"I'm grateful this has happened to me," says Els, "but after the U.S. Open, I got so many calls and requests that I had to take my phone off the hook." Now when Els goes to a tournament site, he carries an obligation to perform at a world-class level. Very few take that weight to the 1st tee in every event, but Els has joined Greg Norman, Price, Nick Faldo, Langer, Fred Couples and Josè María Olazàbal as one of golf's leading men. He is ranked right behind them at No. 7 in the world.

After three rounds at the British, Els had recorded three 69s, giving him a record seven straight British Open rounds in the 60s, though he went on to finish only 24th. It was Els's ninth major, and in those nine he has five top-10 finishes as he heads into the PGA Championship next week at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. The PGA is the only major in which Els has not been a factor. He missed the cut in his two efforts, in 1992 and '93. Few noticed then. In Tulsa the world will be watching.

Success seemed almost inevitable from the start. Els, who grew up in Johannesburg, was 14 when he won the 13-14-year-old division of the Optimist Junior World championship in California, and 16 when he became the youngest player to win the South African Amateur. At 19 he won the South African tour school title.

Having accomplished all that, Els tried the Ben Hogan Tour, the PGA Tour's minor league, in 1991. In eight events he earned only $6,143 and grew terribly homesick. He returned home low on confidence. But that difficult period was part of Els's education. Missing cuts and staying at roadside motels gave him a sobering dose of reality. "Those guys are survivors out there," Els says. "They play for a living, and they kicked my butt."

In his search for the consistency he would need to compete at the highest level, Els called on teaching pro David Lead-better. At the time, Els regularly hit vicious hooks. To minimize the problem, Leadbetter had Els rotate his grip and correct his weight shift. Better results soon followed.

In 1992 Els won six of eight events on the Sunshine Tour in South Africa, including his country's triple crown: the Masters, Open and PGA. The last person to do that had been Player, 13 years earlier. Last fall Els shot four rounds in the 60s to win the Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Japan. This January he opened with a 61 and finished six strokes ahead of Norman to win the Dubai Desert Classic. So what occurred at Oakmont was not unexpected. "He's got a lot calmer temperament than I had 14 years ago," Norman says. "I wasn't on an even keel then. It's taken me 14 years to get to where he is now."

"Ernie's strong, he's good-looking, he's blond, and he hits the ball a long way," says Leadbetter. "He has all the prerequisites of a superstar." How long he stays cast in that role depends on how well Els handles the spotlight. As Player says, "Champions can accept burdens."

Player, of course, is South Africa's most enduring golf champion, but he and Els did not play together until a practice round at Turnberry before the British Open. Other than their shared national heritage, the two could not be more dissimilar. Player lost his mother early in life, and his father labored in the gold mines. Both of Els's parents are alive, and his father, Neels, owns a successful transport business that supported Ernie's amateur career. Player is 5'7", 145 pounds and puts every ounce of muscle into his swing. Els is 6'3", 210 pounds and always seems to have 30 yards in reserve.

Player, now 58, took pride in sharing with Els the knowledge he has gained in playing 39 British Opens. When they arrived at the 12th hole, Player pointed out the runways used by Allied planes during World War II. He explained that the Turnberry hotel on the hill had been used then as a hospital. Els soaked it all in—and then made a 30-foot putt on the final hole to halve their match. The ball went in the cup with the same authority that his putts at Oakmont had shown.

"Unless something unusual happens, this man is going to win many major championships," says Player. "Augusta is just made for him, and watch out for him at St. Andrews next year."

Golf came easy for the young Els. At age four he would drag his father's trolley around the Kempton Park course near Johannesburg while Neels played his round. Alongside his older brother, Dirk, Ernie learned to swing by gripping down the shafts of their dad's clubs. But there was more to Els's athletic career than golf: He also played soccer, cricket, rugby and tennis. When Ernie came home from a rugby game at age 12 with a broken finger, however, his mother, Hettie, forbade his playing any more contact sports.

Els continued to pursue tennis, though, and at 13 he won a major regional event—the Eastern Junior Transvaal Championship. In 1984, at age 14, he won the Junior World golf title in San Diego over a field that included hometown favorite Phil Mickelson. Els's tennis career soon came to an abrupt halt when his father dug up the tennis court in the backyard and replaced it with a putting green. "He was so serious with tennis at one stage that I had a chat with him," Neels says. "I told him, 'You know you can't be successful in both sports. You have to make a choice' "

Els's decision wasn't difficult. "I realized I was better at golf than at tennis," he says. "Guys were beating me at tennis."

U.S. universities expressed interest in Els, but he didn't want to devote four years to college golf, and his father didn't want him to leave South Africa. So Ernie began 22 months of mandatory service in the South African military, joining the army in January 1988.

It was far from hard duty. After five months of basic training Els lived the coddled life of a top athlete. While many of his friends were up in Angola fighting against the Cubans, Els held down a cushy job at the Pretoria air force base that allowed him to play and teach golf all day long. He had the time of his life. "More than anything, I played golf," says Els. "I would give the generals some lessons, but I was really just looking after them."

And all the while he got bigger and stronger. Els's sheer athleticism and natural ability allow him to overcome errors in ways other players simply can't. "He's got a huge pair of shoulders," says Leadbetter. "He can have that extra 30 yards when he wants it, and he can hit from thick rough." This was the case at Oakmont, where Els's strength—and his poise—carried him to his win. Through three rounds he led with a seven-under-par 206. Sunday was not his best day. He missed eight fairways, but he had the strength to reach greens and save pars in situations that had bogey written all over them.

At the 72nd hole, after rescuing himself from a hooked tee shot, Els pulled into a tie for first. In Monday's 18-hole playoff he started the day bogey, triple bogey but steadied and made a gut-twisting putt at the 18th to send the playoff into sudden death. "In the playoff you could just see that the guy is mature beyond his years," says Price.

"He showed me what I used to see in Jack Nicklaus," says Player. "Jack could play badly and still get the ball in the hole and win. That to me is more impressive than long drives and all the other things that matter. He holed that putt on the last hole. The great ones don't miss 'em, and Ernie is going to be a great one."

PHOTOLOUISE GUBB/JB PICTURESAt his folks' home in Johannesburg, Els can practice putting or just pal around with Hogan and Nadia. PHOTOMANNY MILLANEls, who dwarfs countryman Player (left) physically, hopes he can fill his shoes professionally. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)