In so many ways, the vision is broader than it was in his youth, but Ernie Els is still single-minded about winning – and one of the tournaments in his sights is the 104th South African Open Championship which gets underway at Glendower Golf Club on Thursday.
The five-time champion’s role in the tournament is more than just one of its most illustrious players: He is the tournament host and ambassador, and that has brought him back to his roots in Ekurhuleni and on a course on which he learned so much of his golf.
“I grew up only 12 kilometres from here, so this was the course to try and play if you could get in,” he reminisced. “You had to speak to the secretary very nicely. When you got in, you were here all day, you didn’t want to leave, so it was a real treat to play here.”
He last won the South African Open in 2010 at Durban Country Club, when he won his fifth title, and he last played at Glendower 17 years back: “I think 1997 was the last time I played here when Vijay (Singh) won. But before that, in the 80s, I played here a lot as an amateur and junior,” he said.
Now, he faces a challenge to the kind of dominance of local golf he once displayed from a collection of talented young guns.
Amongst those is Branden Grace, with whom he shared some ‘friendly’ rounds recently on The Links at Fancourt during the December holiday season. “Yeah, he got me,” laughed Els. “He shot a 31 on the Links’ front nine, so he came out of the blocks quick. I pressed him, but yeah, he still took my money. Hopefully I can get it back this week!”
And while he’s approaching 46, his drive to win is as all-encompassing as ever. “With the technology nowadays it keeps us current with the younger guys,” he said. “I’m not as long as Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson, or Rory (McIlroy). Certain golf courses, like this one, bring the guys back to playing a different game, not just a power game. If we get the right course then we can be really competitive.
“I still have the drive and want to achieve something. If I can be greedy and choose just one major I still want to win, I would go with Augusta. That would be a Cinderella story. I like Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship this year, so we’ll see.”
But as he moves into the latter part of his career, his eye is on a much bigger picture. “I’ve always taken the South African Open as like a fifth major for me, so to be involved in a capacity where I can host and be an ambassador, thus giving something back to the tournament, is just a phenomenal gift that was given to me,” he said.
And with fund-raising opportunities it gives him for his Els for Autism charity and the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, he’s even more motivated to contribute to the success of the tournament.
In the years ahead, he sees great potential for the South African Open. “I’ll be working behind the scenes, working with sponsors, working with players, and just trying to get the field to a great standard,” he said.
“It would also be nice to move the tournament around the country a bit as well, so there are a lot of things we can talk about still, but the relationship has just started and I can see a lot of positives coming out of it already.”
For four days now, however, that urge to win is going to be his driving force. “I played so much last year because I wanted to try and get that feeling going on the greens that got when I was younger.
“I always want to compete, but more than that I want to feel confident on the greens. I started to get it and hopefully we can get it back into the flow early in this week.”