As Phil Mickelson danced a merry jig on the 18th green at Augusta, Ernie Els couldn’t help but look a little forlorn. An incredible round of 67 had put him on the brink of forcing a playoff at the 2004 U.S. Masters but, in front of a partisan crowd, Mickelson drained an 18-foot putt on the last to claim his first Major title at Els’ expense.
Twelve years on and it remains the closest four-time major champion Els has come to slipping on the fabled Green Jacket.
Among a richly talented field at this year’s Masters, the South African – currently ranked 218th in the world – doesn’t stand out as an obvious contender. Should he achieve the unlikely and claim a first Masters crown, Els would in fact become the event’s oldest ever champion, surpassing the record of Jack Nicklaus who was 46 years and 82 days when he won in 1986.
But Els is not dwelling on the odds being stacked against him or his two previous second-place finishes at The Masters. And he is certainly not thinking about his world ranking. With his form looking more promising in early 2016, ‘Big Easy’ is looking forward to his 23rd appearance at Augusta.
“My goal-setting hasn’t changed really in the last 20 years,” Els tells Sport360. “Everything I do – from the gym and range work away from the course to the way we organise my schedule – is structured to help give myself the best opportunity to win tournaments and Majors. That’s what drives me. Well… that and my love for the game. I’m still really enjoying my golf.”
A triumph at The Masters would represent a major shock with Els currently feeling his way into the season, but he certainly believes that he is capable of winning another Major.
“The Major wins are the highlights of my career, without a doubt. That’s the ultimate; that’s how history judges us as players,” Els says. “I like to think there’s another Major win in me still.
“Golf is the kind of sport where if your game is good, you stay fit, and stay in love with the game, then you can win Majors in your 40s, maybe even your 50s. Look what Tom Watson did at Turnberry in 2009 – he was one putt away from winning The Open at 59 years of age.
“The Majors also bring in other aspects like your experience and knowing the venues and conditions. I think I have consistently played my best at the Open Championship but am also very proud of my US Open victories and enjoy the challenge that those set ups bring.
“I have been close a few times at The Masters and Top 5 at the PGA Championships too but I’d take another one of any of the four Majors!”
Els’ optimism about his chances of adding to his Majors haul in the future is a far cry from the frustration he felt during much of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, in which he struggled with the putter. The issues were well documented but after making fundamental changes to his technique, the greens once again hold no fear – a fact exemplified by a fine performance at the Dubai Desert Classic in February.
“The long game never really went away, but as you probably know I had a tough couple of seasons on the greens,” Els explains. “That’s turned around now, though, since I switched to the cross-handed putting grip earlier this year.
“It’s kind of rekindled my love for putting again. I’m feeling much more comfortable in my set-up and my stroke and I’m making more putts, and as any golfer will tell you that is a nice feeling.”
As Els tries to get to grips with the greens at The Masters this Thursday, 12,000km away there will be a charity event taking place that is inspired by him. At Abu Dhabi Golf Club, the Autism Golf Challenge will bring together golfers to raise funds for both the Els for Autism and Al Jalila foundations. It is the first of three events being held in the UAE this year, with the second coming at the Els Club in Dubai on April 28 and the third at Arabian Ranches Golf Club on September 22.
Since 2009, Els – whose son Ben is autistic – has been working tirelessly to promote awareness of autism and in 2015 he opened the doors for the Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter, Florida – a moment he describes as “one of the proudest days of my life”. The facility is continuing to grow and there are naturally plans to replicate the model around the world in the future, including potentially in the Middle East.
“Rickie’s hole-in-one was a very special moment, one that we’ll never forget, and obviously it was huge for our Foundation. That was a million bucks right there!”
The Autism Golf Challenge in the UAE, organised and run by passionate South African Duayne Baron de Waal, will add to an ever-expanding pool of funds to help future projects. It is a kitty that was handed a huge, and high-profile, boost last month when Rickie Fowler bagged a hole-in-one at an Els for Autism event in Florida.
The video of a joyous Els embracing Fowler went viral, but more important was the $1 million donation that the ace secured.
“It was a very special moment, one that we’ll never forget, and obviously it was huge for our Foundation,” Els beams. “That was a million bucks right there! It means we can get started sooner on building the Upper School at The Els Center of Excellence.
“The publicity on television and across social media meant that a whole new audience got to hear about what we’re doing with our Foundation and also gained a greater awareness of autism in general.”
Fowler’s hole-in-one brought golf and autism awareness closer together but Els has long been working on combining the two, the Els for Autism Foundation recently creating and rolling out an acclaimed curriculum that better prepares golf pros to coach those with autism.
“It’s been great to see our ‘Ernie Els #GameOn Autism’ golf program growing in the US and now Canada, South Africa and Ireland,” Els says. “We hope to be able to bring it to the Middle East too. We have had great feedback from the families and also the instructors who learn the curriculum and how to teach those with special needs. It’s incredible to think how far we’ve come, but there’s a long way to go.”
Even if Els falls short at his year’s Masters and his quest for a fifth Major, his historic success on the course and continued charitable endeavours off it, ensures that his legacy as both a consummate pro and compassionate philanthropist, is guaranteed.
ERNIE ELS ON…
The Olympics: “I would love to be on the team; I’m a long way off qualifying just now, but if it did come off it would be a bit of icing on the cake in my career. It would be unbelievable to be part of the team and to walk out in the stadium behind the South African flag. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about that.”
Golf course design: “It’s an incredibly rewarding business. I just love the whole process, from those early site visits where you see the potential of a piece of land, through to the construction phases and then the openings which are days that make you very proud.”
Playing in Dubai: “I always enjoy it. It feels great when you can return to a course where you have enjoyed some success; you go there with very positive vibes and good memories. The Majlis Course at the Emirates Golf Club is no exception. I like the lines off the tees and the greens are receptive to good shots so if you play well you can really get on a roll and shoot some low numbers. And I know I am biased but I always enjoy spending time at the Els Club when I am in Dubai. It is always in great condition with first classs facilities and the staff are always so gracious there.”
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