A week before Christmas, news filtered through that South African golf’s finest player for the last quarter of a century, Ernie Els, was to become the player/host of the South African Open. It was a wonderful boost for the tournament, but, as he mentioned in his press release, a fantastic honour for Els too.
No matter how far or wide our superstars travel, they always remember where they came from, and their national Open never has any problems luring them back into town. But for Els, this tournament is particularly special; as is his track record competing in it over the years.
As a gangly 21-year old, he made his debut in golf’s second-oldest national Open at Durban Country Club in 1991. It was just his sixth appearance on the Sunshine Tour (then known as the FNB Summer Tour), but he impressed as he finished 14th.
Yet it was in this event 12 months later at Houghton that we really got a taste of things to come. He quite simply left the field in his dust with an opening round of 65, and eventually cruised home for the remainder of the tournament to see off his nearest challenger Derek James by three strokes. He was a South African Open champion, and everyone in the country – and around the world – took notice.
A seventh place and two runner-up finishes were to follow over the next three years, and the inevitable transpired at Royal Cape in 1996 as he charged to a second title with a final round of 66.
The following year he was once again in the hunt, although had to settle for third place after a slightly disappointing final round of 70. The now two-time US Open champion put that right in ’98 though, carving up Durban CC – one of the Big Easy’s favourite courses – to engrave his name on the iconic old trophy for a third time.
During a period in which South Africans began to dominate the Tour’s flagship event, Els’ appearances were curtailed by global commitments. But he was back for the 2005/06 event, where he and Retief Goosen were locked in one of the more memorable duels at the testing Fancourt Links. Goosen eventually edged him out by a stroke, but the crowds left having watched the nation’s two favourite sons put on an exhibition that wouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Els returned the following year even more determined to add a fourth trophy to the cabinet, and in benign conditions at Humewood, he blasted his way to a 24-under par total and a three-stroke win, getting it done in some style.
Durban Country Club, or the “Old Lady” of South African golf, as Els terms it, was to be the scene of his fifth title in 2010. It was also the 100th staging of the event, and, fittingly, it was Goosen who once again played adversary. Almost the entire first day was lost to rain, and continued showers left the par-three fourth hole unplayable on the final day. As a result, 34 holes were played in a scintillating last round during which Els seemed to be strolling to victory.
However, Goosen didn’t lie down without a fight, and birdied four of the last five holes to put the heat on the former world number one. But Els wasn’t to be denied on the course he so loved, and eventually exacted his revenge on Goosen from five years earlier to sneak home by one.
In total, Els has made 16 SA Open starts, and boasts five wins, along with five other finishes in the top three. Only four times has he failed to finish in the top 10, and only once has he ended up outside the top 20.
It all amounts to a quite extraordinary pedigree, and when he arrives at Glendower this week, he will be the man to beat. Even at 45 years of age, his powers are far from being on the wane, and it would take a brave man to bet against him adding a sixth title to his collection on Sunday.