He played his first major championship in 1989, when he missed the cut in The Open Championship at the age of 19. This week, South Africa’s Hall of Famer Ernie Els tees it up in his 100th major when the PGA Championship gets underway at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina.
During that 28-year journey, Els has become one of the game’s greats, and perhaps the very epitome of South African golf in the modern era – big and strong with a free-flowing swing, but, perhaps more importantly, caring, convivial and generous with his time and his resources. Of course everyone calls him the Big Easy.
That he went on to win his first major championship when he took the US Open in 1994 as a 24-year-old was no surprise to anyone. That he took two more majors – one more US Open in 1997 and The Open in 2002 – was impressive in the era of the rise and then dominance of Tiger Woods, the man who irretrievably changed golf.
And then, 10 years after he won The Open, he improbably got his hands on the Claret Jug for a second time, his 2012 victory sealing his place in the lore of golf whether he wins another major championship or not.
He was denied a career grand slam by the slimmest of margins: A pair of second-place finishes in the Masters was a source of frustration for him, and he has twice come third in the PGA Championship.
Of course, golf is a game of infinite possibilities, as Tom Watson showed when he so nearly won The Open in 2009 at the age of 59. But the reality is Els will find it increasingly difficult to get into the Masters. He will play longer in the PGA Championship, but who knows how long.
No matter. The outpouring of praise for Els this week at Quail Hollow will use words like ‘ambassador’, ‘loyal’, ‘genial’, ‘role-model’ and ‘hero’. Ask any young Sunshine Tour professional – or older one, for that matter – who he admires most, and there will be an overwhelming majority of them who will name Els.
In his latter competitive years, his struggles with putting humanised him to an even greater extent. Through those struggles, as well as his triumphs, he became perhaps the most beloved South African sportsman of his era.
But it was the work he has done in raising awareness about autism internationally which has sealed his reputation. Dealing with his son Ben’s autism led him to become an important figure in a field which was fraught with ignorance and fear. Confronting his own intersection with autism made him a pioneer in dealing with it, and helped him become even more than a great golfer.
That is shown by his generous hosting over recent years of the South African Open Championship, where he gives unstintingly of his time – to tournament promotion as well as to Els for Autism –despite trying to perform in the tournament to his own exacting standards.
He’ll have none of that responsibility on his shoulders this week at Quail Hollow. And while the eyes of the world will be on the big young names, South Africa – to every last person – will be willing the Big Easy on.
Most of all, when that last putt is sunk, we will be proud of Ernie Els.