Ernie Els – one of golf’s great people

A friend of mine asked me the other day, “If you could interview any living golfer, active or retired, who would it be?”

I’ve never been asked that question before, and I had to think.  I’ve had the good fortune to have met, chatted with, and/or interviewed quite a few well-known players in my day, from caddying for Ada Mackenzie when I was 10, to former U.S. Amateur champ Bill Campbell, to Arnie, Jack, Ray Floyd, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Sam Snead, and Tiger Woods, to Marlene Streit, Laura Davies, and Brooke Henderson.  I’ve at least shaken hands with 18 Masters Champions.  I’ve hung out with Fred Couples and Nick Price, Tommy Bolt and Art Wall, Jr.

I mention these names not to try to impress anyone.  I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to meet all these great names, and many more.  But you can see that answering my friend’s question wasn’t easy.

And then I came up with the name of someone I’ve met a few times, and even did a video interview with a long time ago.  Someone I admire very much, for his golf swing and his record, but more for his character and his accomplishments off the course.  Someone I’d really love to sit down with and talk about his life and career for an hour.

No, I’m not talking about Phil Mickelson.  I’m referring to Ernie Els.

I first met The Big Easy on the range at Doral in 1995, when he was 25, and being touted as the Next Great Player in Golf.   It was Wednesday of tournament week, and we had arranged through his agent that I would interview him for promos for the upcoming Canadian Skins Game.  When I arrived, Ernie was hitting balls, and I could see he hadn’t shaved.  I remember thinking to myself, hmmm, does he not care about his public image?

We did a nice six minute interview and he said all the right things about coming to play in Canada, looking forward to playing against Greg Norman, Fred Couples, and Nick Price.  He said he’d heard great things about The National Golf Club, where we were playing the Skins that year.

But he also kept saying he hoped to win a lot of money from the Skins Game.  I guess it was his way of saying he’d be playing hard to win, but it sounded pretty crass, and I remember thinking, somebody needs to give this boy a little media training.  (I’m happy to say I don’t believe Ernie would make either of these mistakes today.)

Els with wife Liezl

As it happened, neither Norman nor Els ended up playing in the Skins that year.  Long story.  But Ernie did come to our event in Montreal the next year, along with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Liezl.  A more charming couple you could never meet, and if I hadn’t been happily married myself, I would’ve asked Liezl to run away to Fiji with me… beautiful and smart is an irresistible attraction!

So, fast forward a couple of decades.  Ernie is now in the twilight of his regular Tour career.  He’ll turn 48 in October.  Whether or not he moves onto the Champions Tour when he turns 50, who knows, or, frankly, cares?

He’s in the World Golf Hall of Fame, he’s won four majors (two U.S., two British Opens), won the World Match Play seven times, was briefly ranked Number One in the World Rankings (this during the Tiger era), and was ranked in the top ten for 788 weeks.  He also finished runner-up six times in majors.  All this would presumably put him in the top 20 of all time, I would think.

But I would LOVE to ask Ernie, over a couple of pints, or glasses of his fine Stellenbosch Cabernet, whether HE believes he achieved all he could have… in view of all the initial hype, in view of the lasting quality of his game, and in view of the distractions that perhaps limited his record of achievement.

By distractions, I mean one in particular.  Nearly ten years ago, Ernie and Liezl went public with the fact that their young son, Ben, had been diagnosed as autistic.   Rather than just buy appropriate and expensive care and treatment for their boy, the Els jumped into action.  According to Wikipedia: “In 2009, Els launched an annual charity golf event, the Els for Autism Pro-Am, in Palm Beach Gardens near his South Florida residence during the PGA Tour’s March swing into the area. The first event, which featured many PGA Tour and Champions Tour golfers, raised $725,000 for The Renaissance Learning Center, a nonprofit charter school in the area for autistic children. The couple has also established the Els Center of Excellence, which began as a drive to build a new campus for the aforementioned school but has since mushroomed into a $30 million plan to combine the school with a research facility.”  Ernie is on the Board of the Els Center, Liezl is Secretary of the Board.  It’s a huge achievement.

A few years earlier, Ernie had also set up a Foundation in South Africa to help under-privileged kids, an organization that he remains very involved in.  He’s put his name, at least, on Ernie Els Wines, and like many of his peers, has become involved in golf course design, with nearly a dozen layouts done or in progress.

And along with his mentor, fellow South African Gary Player, he’s probably the most travelled player in the modern era, in terms of miles logged around the planet.

To me, Ernie Els has set the Gold Standard in terms of what a successful and very fortunate person should have done with his time, talent, and good fortune.  I would love to talk to him about how he sees it all.  But whether he thinks that maybe, on the course, he’s not done all he could have.

And whether the answer to that question matters to him in the slightest.

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