- Top 100
- Ernie Els
Ernie Els grew up in Germiston, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where he played a wide variety of sport, excelling at cricket, rugby and tennis. Indeed, his prowess with a tennis racquet was such that he won the Eastern Transvaal Junior Championships at the age of thirteen.
He played golf at Kempton Park Golf Club with his older brother Dirk and his father Neels and was soon down to scratch and entering competitions. In 1984 he won the Junior World Golf Championship for the 13-14 age group in San Digo, beating Phil Mickelson into second place.
His golf career continued to blossom back in his home country, winning both the Boys and Men’s South African Championships in 1986, then he turned professional three years later following another national triumph, this time in the South African Amateur Stroke Play Championship.
The first of more than seventy professional victories for “The Big Easy” arrived in 1991 at the Amatola Sun Classic (a now-defunct event on the Sunshine Tour) which was played on the course at King Williams Town Golf Club in the Eastern Cape.
Over the following three decades, Ernie would win four Majors, seven World Match Play titles and two World Golf Championships, as well as representing South Africa and the International Team in twenty-two editions of the Alfred Dunhill Cup, World Cup and Presidents Cup between 1992 and 2013.
He formed Ernie Els Design at the start of the new millennium, a few years after the Els course debuted at Mission Hills Golf Club Shenzhen. Ernie would probably be the first to admit his design input for this Chinese layout was minimal, though the marketing blurb will no doubt talk up his involvement with the real architect, Brian Curley.
His first real foray into the world of golf course architecture was actually another collaboration in 2000, this time with J. Michael Poellet at Whiskey Creek Golf Club in Maryland. This remains his only design in the United States, though he’s since fashioned a couple of courses in Hawaii (Hoakalei in 2009) and the Bahamas (Albany in 2010).
As might be expected, Ernie has been responsible for producing several South African layouts: Ouibaii, Western Cape in 2005; Els Club Copperleaf, Gauteng in 2008; and Highland Gate, Mpumalanga in 2014. Anahita, off the east coast of Africa on the island of Mauritius, was also unveiled in 2008.
The Els Club brand actually began with the Els Club Dubai in 2008 and it’s since expanded into Malaysia at Els Club Teluk Datai and the 36-hole facility at Els Club Desaru Coast, where Ernie laid out the Ocean course then co-designed the Valley course with Vijay Singh.
Ongoing projects include several in Vietnam (City West, Vinpearl, Phu Quoc and Ecopark, Hanoi), Kingyan Manor in China and Lido Lakes in Indonesia. In and around South Africa, there are unfinished commissions at Nondela in KwaZulu-Natal, Amber Golf in Zanzibar and Desert Star in Namibia.
It would be remiss to not make mention of Ernie’s most controversial design undertaking to date, the renovation of the West course at Wentworth in Surrey, England. It underwent a couple of multi-million pound facelifts in 2009 and 2016 and it’s fair to say the jury’s still out on whether the cumulative effect of these expensive modifications will help to arrest the course’s fall from grace in the ranking lists.
Greg Letsche graduated with a BSc. in Agronomy from Ohio State University in 1980 and he’s worked with Ernie as a Senior Design Associate since 2005, having spent the previous fifteen years with Jack Nicklaus. He’s also a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and the Golf Course Superintendent Association of America.
Thad Bell joined the Els design team in 2006, going to work immediately on the Anahita course in Mauritius. He was with Nicklaus Design and Nugent Golf Associates before joining up with Ernie and his degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Georgia has been put to good use on projects in South Africa, the Middle East and China.
World Golf Hall of Fame: The Big Easy’s glorious swing, which Player once compared to Sam Snead’s, will allow him to add to his glittering resume after his induction into the Hall of Fame. Witness his 2010 season, where he took down one of the best fields in golf to win his second career World Golf Championships event and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Meanwhile, his foundation in South Africa was bearing the fruit of players like 2010 Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen and 2011 Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel.
That foundation is not the only place Els is aspiring to make a difference. His son, Ben, was born with autism. In response, Els is using his high-profile platform to help raise funds and awareness for the causes of autism and its possible treatments. In 2009, Els and his wife Liezl established the Els for Autism Foundation. They have donated millions of their own money and are continuing to raise funds for a Center for Excellence that would offer professional and medical resources, therapy and education to help autistic children lead full adult lives.
Edited extract from a Golf.com interview published in October 2018:
A year from now, I turn 50. I can believe it – it’s right there on my green, much-stamped South African passport. Birthdate: October 17, 1969. I don’t know what I’ll be doing that day. I do know where I’ll be two months later. At Royal Melbourne Golf Club, the spectacular Australian course, for the Presidents Cup. I’m the captain of the International team. Tiger is the captain of the American team. We’ve been at this for a long while. He won his first major in 1997, at Augusta, and two months later I won my second U.S. Open. I’m looking forward to it.
As the captain, I find myself watching more golf on TV than I ever have, including the Ryder Cup in Paris. I don’t think the Presidents Cup is the Ryder Cup for odd-numbered years. They’re different events. I do think the Presidents Cup can be as exciting as the Ryder Cup, and as competitive. My job is to get the 12 International players comfortable, regardless of where they are from – with the food, with the housing, with the different support people and assistant captains. Most importantly, with each other.
After I turn 50, I’m sure I’ll play some senior golf. For years, Gary Player told me—and anybody who would listen!—that he believed the senior majors should count as majors. I’d never go that far, but from what I can tell the senior schedule has three significant major events on it: the U.S. Senior Open, the Senior British Open and the Senior PGA Championship. Gary Player is the only person to have won all three. Perhaps the career “Senior Slam” should be more celebrated in golf. That would be another goal for me, to win those three.
With 50 approaching, I find myself taking a more careful look at my life and the lives of the people I love the most. I have an older brother, Dirk, and an older sister, Carina. They both loved sports when they were kids, just as I did. But because I had a little more promise, I got more attention, inside and outside our home. Was that fair? No. Is that sort of thing part of human nature? Yes. If you’re aware of it, you can do something about it. Now we’re all three closer than we’ve ever been, but it has taken effort. Carina is married to a Serbian gentleman named Dragan Rebula. Their son, Jovan Rebula, learned the game in South Africa and is now on the Auburn golf team. I’m proud to say that this past summer he won the British Amateur, which got him an exemption to the Open at Carnoustie and next year’s Masters and U.S. Open. Pretty cool!