The Road Hole at St Andrews is not usually a place where golfers smile.
But on this sunny afternoon on the Old Course, Ernie Els was all smiles.
“It’s a good time for me at the moment,” Els says. And you can see in
his eyes that it’s not only a good time for the big South African, but also a
very important time for Els. If anything, 2015 has been a year in which the
“Big Easy” has become part of the bigger picture.
This year, Els became the 18th recipient of the Payne Stewart
Award in recognition of his work to help improve the lives of autism sufferers,
and of which his son Ben is one.
He established the Els for Autism Foundation in 2009, and this year
marked the historic moment of the opening of the Els Centre
of Excellence in Florida. The facility has schools and medical buildings
dedicated to proving that autistic children can not only be a part of society,
but can actually excel and thrive. It has been built to offer the best tuition
for autistic children while at the same time serve as a research facility, with
cameras in each classroom allowing scientists from around the world to observe
the children at any given time.
with wife Liezl, who was one of the big drivers of the project, Els described
the opening of the facility as a “Dream come true... we just want to show people
what a school for autistic kids should look like”.
also this year, Els also accepted an ambassadorial role for the South African
Els reflected on
these and other achievements that have come off the golf course in 2015 when,
at an emotional ceremony where he was presented with the Payne Stewart Award,
he thanked those gathered for what he said was an award given to the players
for “Doing what we’re supposed to do, and that’s giving back”.
He spoke of his love for Stewart and his family. He told of how Stewart
had taught him many lessons on the golf course early in his career. He
explained how privileged he felt he was to have had the career and chances he’s
had, and related how many of his friends in South Africa who were perhaps more
talented golfers didn’t get the same breaks as he did to also showcase their
talents on an international stage.
Yes, it’s a good time for Ernie Els. And he knows it.
And as he returns to Sun City, he’ll also be thankful for what the
Nedbank Golf Challenge has meant to him over the years.
Els is the most successful golfer in the history of the Nedbank Golf
Challenge, and is easily also this tournament’s most popular.
Since his debut in this tournament in 1992, when he finished a
creditable third, Els has become a darling of the Nedbank Golf Challenge
His victories here in 1999, 2000 and 2002 have underpinned some of the
most memorable moments in the history of this event.
And this year he returns for an incredible record 19th
appearance in “Africa’s Major” and as the man who has earned the most
prize money from this tournament over the years.
From a playing point of view, Els is the first to admit that he hasn’t
had the kind of season which reflects the hard work he continually puts into
He enjoyed a top finish of tied 13th in the PGA Tour’s Arnold
Palmer Invitational, and on the European Tour his best finish was tied 12th
in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
He was also unable to add to his tally of four Majors, although he
played on the weekend of every Major in 2015.
And while Els admits
his hunger to get back into the winner’s circle has not diminished in the
least, he does believe his focus is shifting to include more of his
philanthropic work off the golf course.
changing a bit. You know, I’m still trying to play decent golf and so on. But
obviously things are changing. I’m becoming a bit of an ambassador for autism.
I want to try and build on that, and the Els for Autism Foundation. So we’ll
see where it all goes.”
Raised in a golf family and honing his swing on the fairways of Kempton
Park Golf Club, Els’s career really began to take off when he won the 1992
South African Open. That was the year Els achieved the triple crown of winning
the South African Open, South African PGA and South African Masters in the same
breakthrough came a year later when he won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan. Then in
1994, Els broke through at the highest level of the game and announced himself
to the world with victory in his first Major – the 1994 US Open.
Since then he has grown to become one of the world’s most
recognised golfers and a truly global player who has amassed four Majors, the
last of which was the 2012 Open.
In the Nedbank Golf
Challenge, Els’s three victories in 1999, 2000 and 2002 equal Nick Price and
David Frost’s record number of wins in the event.
Els’s 1999 triumph
came with a tournament record of 25 under par. And his overall dominance of
this tournament is reflected in the fact that he has shot the most sub-par
rounds on the Gary Player Country Club course than any other player in the
history of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
As he returns this
year, armed with a new sense of balance and purpose in his life, Els could well
have found the catalyst to carry him into the record books as the first
four-time winner of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
Born: October 17, 1969.
Turned pro: 1989.
Family: Wife – Liezl.
Children – Samantha, Ben.
Movies, sports, reading, wine-making.
Career highlights: A
global player with over 60 victories worldwide and four Majors, including the
1994 and 1997 US Opens and the 2002 and 2012 Open Championships. Was in the top
10 of the Official World Golf Ranking for a record 758 consecutive weeks. Is
the European Tour’s leading all-time money winner and a member of the World
Golf Hall of Fame.
2015 highlights: Received
the Payne Stewart Award for his off-course philanthropy and his work to help
improve the lives of autism sufferers.
2015 Majors: The Masters –
T22. The US Open – T54. The Open – T65. The PGA Championship – T25.
NGC record: 19th
appearance – 1992 – T3, 1993 – 7, 1994 – T3, 1995 – T7, 1996 – 2, 1997 – 2,
1998 – 5, 1999 – 1, 2000 – 1, 2001 – 2, 2002 – 1, 2003 – 17, 2004 – T2, 2005 –
9, 2006 – 4, 2007 – 3, 2010 – 5, 2013 – 29.