The crowds roared and the young man from South Africa held aloft one of golf’s most enduring trophies: The claret jug. Ernie Els unleashed his famous smile and addressed a crowd of reporters. “I could not be happier,” he said.
While Els is an Open champion, on that day he was not talking about himself. He was thrilled about Louis Oosthuizen’s seven-shot victory at the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews. Els was beaming like a proud father because Oosthuizen is a graduate of the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, which helps identify young talent in South Africa.
It was quintessential, Els. His achievements on the golf course are indeed worthy of his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum. Many would argue his elegant, powerful golf swing deserves its own exhibit. But the story of The Big Easy cannot be properly told without recognizing his impact off the course.
“Even if I won here this week, I will use the belly putter at the Masters simply because the greens are so quick over there." (on playing with a short putter at the Chiangmai Golf Classic in Thailand)
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.
The Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation has produced two major champions, Louis Oosthuizen (2010 Open Championship) and Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters).
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 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.
It is an awe-inspiring move. Not unlike his swing. After his U.S. Open win at Oakmont, Hall of Fame member Nick Price praised Els’ game, then added, “He’s got his head screwed on right.” It was a full complement, and the true story of Els.