Ernie Els won his first Major 20 years ago. Finishing tied with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in the US Open at Oakmont Country Club, the South African bounced back from a triple-bogey on the first hole of an 18-hole play-off to finish level with Roberts. A birdie on the second hole of sudden death was enough to give the 24-year-old his first taste of Major glory.
It was the launchpad for a career that’s seen him bag 70 professional victories, including three more Majors – two Opens and a further US Open. As he celebrated his 45th birthday, we caught up with him in Malaysia at the launch of The Els Club Teluk Datai, his first course in south east Asia, to discuss his Olympic ambition, trying to dethrone Tiger and beating his daughter at table tennis…
The island of Langkawi is quite a setting for a golf course…
This is, without doubt, the most spectacular golf course setting I have had the pleasure of working on and I am incredibly excited about the prospect of inviting the first visitors to come and enjoy what has already been voted the region’s “Best Golf Course” at the recent 2014 Asia-Pacific Property Awards. The course is breathtaking and I am delighted with what we have achieved here. I tried to make the most of this unique location, nestled between ancient rainforest and the Andaman Sea, and I believe that we have done just that.
Going back to the beginning of your career, you played rugby, cricket and tennis before focusing on golf. What made you choose that?
I just loved golf more than all the other sports. In rugby you get hurt, and I don’t like to get hurt. I stopped playing rugby at 16, my dad really told me not to play anymore. I still play tennis; my daughter plays and I’ve picked it up again. I’m a shadow of my former self, but I still enjoy the game.
You struggled for a while before making your way on to the PGA Tour. What were the challenges for young Ernie back then?
Well, I look at youngsters now trying to get on the PGA Tour: the competition is only getting stronger and stronger from all around the world, and there are some seriously great players. I was fortunate to get on the South African Tour and tried the European Tour a little bit in the early days, but for some reason I kept missing in America. Then I got a card in Europe and started making some waves there. I then had some very good breaks in South Africa. I won the South African Open and that got me some invites to play in the States and then I won the US Open in 1994. A lot of good things happened to me at an early age, as well as a lot of luck.
You once described 1992 as the year that changed your life. What was so significant about your achievements that year?
That year was the year when I won the South African Open and even today the South African Open gets you into events around the world, as well as The Open Championship. I also won the South African PGA and the Masters and before that Gary Player was the only guy to do that. It was a very good year for me in South Africa, which got me a card in Europe and then I followed that up by finishing fifth at The Open the next year. Everything happened very quickly in about a two-year span that started with the ’92 SA Open.
How much did winning your first Major change your life?
That tournament could have gone any way. It could have gone to Colin Montgomerie, could have gone to Curtis Strange, who was in there, could have gone to Loren Roberts, and for some reason I was in the right place at the right time. I made so many putts that day. If I didn’t get that one, and a 10-year exemption as a 24 year old, and a lifetime exemption on the European Tour… That really set me up.
Can you see yourself getting another Major?
I don’t think about that. I’m thinking about improving. Going to the short putter, there was a huge margin there to improve and I feel I’ve really closed a big gap there.
Of your four Majors and 70 tournament wins, can you pick a favourite?
Any time you lift a trophy it’s wonderful. The joy is indescribable. So to pick one of the Majors over the other is very hard. When I was young, I was very cocky and thought I’d win them all. I thought The Masters was going to be first, then The Open and then US Open and PGA Championship. Well, I haven’t won the Masters so far and I haven’t won the PGA, so I’m going to try to win the Masters before I retire. To achieve that would possibly be my biggest career achievement.
You’ve played all around the world – do you have a favourite course?
It definitely used to be Wentworth, especially when we played the World Matchplay there. I won that a record seven times and my kids were born there. We’ve still got the house there, but we live in Florida a bit more now. That’s one of my favourite venues and the course certainly likes me. The course that I like the most right now, though, is the one surrounding us in Langkawi, but you knew I was going to say that!
Who has been your toughest competitor?
Back in the day, it was definitely Tiger Woods – he was by far the best. It was tough for me because I felt I could really be the best player in the world – and I was for a short time on paper – but Tiger was really the man to beat. Nowadays, it’s the game and the youngsters, you know Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth… I could go on. But, I’m in a different stage of my career. The wins aren’t coming as frequently as they used to, but I really enjoy my game and my time out there.
You were one of the “Big Five” with Tiger, Goosen, Singh and Mickelson. What was it like being part of that?
That was a great time. We were in the prime of our careers. We still play sporadically like we used to back in the day but, you know, I am 45 now, Tiger is nearly 40 and Retief is the same age as me. But that was a golden era. We won a lot of tournaments around the world. I won, just in that five-year period, over 27 events around the world. But Tiger was the dominant figure. He was winning the most Majors and that’s how you become the guy who’s a great player in the game. I got to win only four, Phil’s got five, Retief’s got two, Vijay has three and then Tiger has 14, so it just shows you how dominant he was.
You once said you had a three-year plan to dethrone Tiger. What happened to that?
I felt really good after a win at the South African Open, I think in 2006 or something. I had a very bad knee injury in 2005 and that put me off track and I really wanted to rededicate myself to the game. I don’t normally talk so big, or make such bold statements, but, you know, in South Africa I was feeling that I really needed a goal to go at and I felt I needed a plan, so I made that plan public and I came close. I didn’t quite close the deal and it was maybe something I regret saying, but I wanted to have a goal to go at.
What motivates you nowadays?
I love competition, whether it’s golf or table tennis against my daughter. I’ve been competing since I was 10 years old in a lot of different sports, it’s in my blood. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my brother. He’s older than me. He wrestled me to death. But he instilled a big, competitive drive in me. Because he was a bit older, I was trying to beat him and I couldn’t quite do that too many times. But, nowadays, I compete for myself. I’m still trying, I want to try and win one or two more Majors before I’m totally done, so that still motivates me.
As a global player, what’s your view on golf in the 2016 Olympics?
I would love to be on the team representing South Africa. If it comes off it would be the icing on my career. Presently there’s really no opportunity other than the World Cup for a South African golfer to directly represent his country. Next year that will become a burning goal of mine. I may even allow myself the thought of carrying the South African flag into the stadium.
What will you do when you retire?
Back in the early 1990s, right before the US Open, the media asked me ‘What will happen if you win this US Open?’ I said I’d just take the money, go to the Caribbean and open a bar, and that would be that. That was 21 years ago and we are still trying to win more tournaments, as well as building golf courses all over the world. So I guess that bar is gonna have to wait!