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Ernie Els - 3-time winner

2015-11-09 08:45
Ernie Els

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.

Together 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”.

And also this year, Els also accepted an ambassadorial role for the South African Open.

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 galleries.

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 his game.

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.

“It’s definitely 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 year.

His international 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.

Special interests: 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.

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