Els grew up outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Sports were a big part of the Els family life; when he was 4 years old, little Ernie would help carry clubs for his father Neels as he played the Kempton Park course near their home. Soon, it was obvious that Ernie had prodigious athletic gifts. He played soccer, cricket, rugby and tennis. In a 1994 feature story, Sports Illustrated reported that when 12-year-old Els came home with a broken finger from a rugby match, his mother Hettie forbid him from further contact sports.
That meant golf and tennis. And Els excelled at both. In fact, at 13 he won the Eastern Junior Transvaal Championship, a major regional tennis event. A year later, the 14-year-old Els turned around and won the World Junior Golf Championship in San Diego, Calif., whipping a field that included Phil Mickelson.
Eventually, Els focused his talents on golf. “I realized I was better at golf than at tennis,” Els told Sports Illustrated. “Guys were beating me at tennis.”
He was 16 in 1986 when he became the youngest player to win the South African Amateur. He won the South African tour school title at 19. In 1991, he turned professional and launched one of the most globetrotting careers the golf world has seen since fellow South African and Hall of Fame member Gary Player began his famous barnstorming.
But Els got his start close to home. He won six of eight events in 1992 on the Sunshine Tour in South Africa. That year Els became the first since Player to win South Africa’s Masters, Open and PGA in the same year.
Els officially announced that he would be a global force at the 1994 U.S. Open, when he shot a scorching 66 to top Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie at brutal Oakmont Country Club to win his first major. Els would add another U.S. Open championship at Congressional in 1997. His third major would come at windswept Muirfield in 2002, where he survived a dramatic four-man playoff to earn his Claret Jug.
By the time he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at 40, Els had already won 65 career titles, including 18 on the PGA TOUR.