Exclusive interview with one of the most outstanding images of golf, in the world.
Before our Independence Day holiday (July 9), I decided to do something I felt was necessary. Unfortunately, with what caused COVID-19, the bookstores were one of those that had to endure the crisis the most. So much so that «El Aleph» (name of the business I went to, belonging to the group mentioned before) made the sad decision to close its «Plaza Italia» branch. I’m not an avid reader of books (only newspapers), but it was the ideal opportunity to increase that vocation, while helping people who deserved it. I clarify something, I’m not counting this out of false modesty. What has happened is that fate once again took «an ace out of its sleeve».
In the search to learn, I have found the book with the personal photo that I have shared with you. Seeing him, there was a connection that I had rarely felt in my life. It’s that the people I admire have a common thread: they know how to escape the pitfalls of complexity. And it doesn’t matter if they do it spectacularly or do it with amazing simplicity. They face the problem. They aren’t afraid of failure. They’re heroes without a cape. That’s why they attract, move masses (in any area of life) and forces you to take notes. They save time solving, knowing how valuable this variable is. We say this because the rest of us who are “simply mortals», we tend to pray for the day to last more than 24 hours. These kinds of people don’t look at the clock. They’re always one play ahead.
On the way back to my car, I was anxious (when not!) to read a little more about this writing. I think the following sentence (taken from the present book) is the kickoff for this unprecedented talk:
«Simplification isn’t easy, but we firmly believe that it shouldn’t be complicated, burdensome or exhausting. In particular, there is no need to wait for a long formal review process. Progress can be made right now.» A phrase that fits perfectly in the trajectory of the legendary Ernie Els.
I don’t want to betray my sincerity. Therefore, know that I have pinched my arm, before continuing to write these excerpts. When falling into reality, we could say that I have infinite ways to define this golf hero. And I say hero because everyone, at some point, wanted or wants to be him. The one born in the South African city of Johannesburg (on October 17, 1969) gave us unforgettable moments for the history of our sport. If I go into describing each of them, it will take a long time. Therefore, I leave that homework to you, my dear reader. I will only comment on something, with the intention of recouping your memory: my first contact with golf, with the environment of the majors, was thanks to him. Muirfield 2002 is the perfect example of everything that can happen in a tournament of these characteristics. If you want to know what these types of competitions mean, I recommend that you take the time to rewatch this event. Did you see that, to define your greatness, I don’t need more than 10% of your career? Draw your own conclusions.
In the run-up to the Open Championship, you tend to practice. Well, with all that has been said, I won’t make you wait any longer. Let’s just try to imagine that we are on the fairways of Royal St. George’s, having the opportunity to ask him a question for each hole he does his warm-up. It is only on Tuesday and there is no better way to know the oldest event in the world (within the majors). When we meet a former champion of this type, it isn’t necessary for us to tell many stories about the tournament. He’s the story itself.
Needless to say, aside from his two victories here, we’ll also go into detail about his two-time US Open championship. And not only does everything ends here. The reality of South African golf, the relationship with the Masters and the Presidents Cup (pay special attention to what has been said about the beloved Mexican Abraham Ancer), his view on Phil Mickelson’s victory, the similarities and differences between Koepka vs DeChambeau and his battles with Tiger Woods … «Quiet, please!». The 1st tee awaits us.
– Ernie, I cannot ignore the rise of your countryman Garrick Higgo, in the world of golf. I know that you are aware of his career (like that of all your fellow citizens), due to your concern for each of the representatives of your country. Taking into account that he has already set different records (ex: being the one that needed the fewest tournaments to reach his first three victories, since 1990, equaling what was done by Tiger Woods), how far do you think he can go? How much did the Els Fancourt & Foundation have to do with the rise of this new generation?
– Yes, Garrick’s a really great talent. He’s come out of the blocks fast, which is impressive. And obviously that gives you a lot of confidence. The sky’s the limit for him. He’s playing in the Olympics later this month with Christiaan Bezuidenhout who did actually come through our Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, following in the footsteps of some of our other former members such as Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace. I remember seeing Christiaan play back then. I always liked his attitude, he’s quite a mature and composed young man. As with Garrick, he has a great future ahead of him. I’m sure they’re going to do South Africa proud in Tokyo later this month.
– You have recognized, in previous interviews, that you were quite reserved. And you have said this despite being a contemporary of another legend from your country, such as Retief Goosen. Did your experience as captain in the 2019 Presidents Cup make you regret this? If so, I understand that you wouldn’t repeat the experience, unless the competition returns to South Africa, am I wrong? What advice would you give to your compatriot, Trevor Immelman, who happens to take your position?
– Well… never say never! But yeah, I had my go. Honestly it was wonderful serving as captain of such an amazing bunch of guys. We gave it our all; it just wasn’t enough. I said it then, and I’ll say it again, my team deserved an enormous amount of credit. They were open to a new formula, a new system. They absolutely embraced what I said to them and gave it 100 percent effort and commitment from the get-go. I was so proud of the way they played over the four days. Comparing the two teams on paper and a lot of people would have laughed us out of the building, but we came so close to winning and upsetting one of the greatest golf teams of all time. It really feels like our team is going places. I know Trevor is going to make a fine captain. He was one of my assistants, so he was involved in all the decision making and the planning. He knows the ropes.
– Could you tell us what you remember (without going into intimacy, if you don’t want to) about your conversations with the Mexican Abraham Ancer, in his match with Tiger Woods? Beyond the result, could we say that this represents the importance of Latin Americans, in the face of what is coming in the future of the event?
– I played with Abraham, at The Open earlier that year, and I was impressed. He’s a very fine player, a steely young guy with a lot of confidence. He was a rookie and he went out there and was undefeated in his first four matches, which was a terrific performance. But obviously Tiger was playing well, too. He made, what, seven birdies (or something) in 16 holes. Still a great debut from Abraham and hats off to him.
– You’re currently on the Champions Tour – a tour that was revolutionized by Phil Mickelson’s great victory at this year’s PGA Championship. Is it the best motivation you could have, at this stage of your career? At the same time, could we say that this is the best lesson that players like Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau could have, considering their recent differences?
– I don’t know if Bryson or Brooks need anyone’s help on or off the golf course! But yeah, it was inspiring seeing what Phil did at the PGA Championship. That was an incredible performance. But my motivation has never left me. I still love the competition. I’m playing well and enjoying it out here, on the Champions Tour. It was nice to get a couple of wins under my belt and obviously trying to win a bunch more before I’m done!
– Moving on, I could go on and on talking about all your accomplishments. You marked a legacy in the world of golf. Beyond the fact that you had already been making “noise” on the circuit, you began to show your unique talent, with your victories at the 1994 US Open (in Oakmont, through a playoff with the American Loren Roberts and the Scotsman Colin Montgomerie) and 1997 (at Congressional Country Club). Winning these types of events so quickly, was it the best thing that could had happened to you to have the career you have?
– Absolutely. I mean, there’s never a bad time to win a US Open! (laughs). But seriously, looking back, it was almost like a shock the way it happened. No one, not even myself, thought I was going to win a US Open so soon. I always had dreams of winning quite a few majors, but I actually thought my first would most likely be at Augusta or maybe the British. As it happened, it was at the US Open, which was fine with me! That victory was really the launchpad for my career. Everything went crazy, in a good way, after that.
– I am going to allow myself to tell you a personal “golf confession”. The first time I saw a major was when you won the 2002 Open Championship (at Muirfield), when I was 10 years old. An Open Championship that had all the seasonings. The terrifying weather on Saturday and the most massive playoff (in this type of event. You played that tiebreaker with the Frenchman Thomas Levet and the Australians Stewart Appleby and Steve Elkington) were the 2 most terrific situations of the competition. Belgian Jos Vansthiphout, your remarkable sports psychologist, had a lot to do with this championship. Would you remind our readers, for those who don’t know the story, the main idea of what he told you? Did this cross your mind when you made that unforgettable approach from the bunker, on the last hole of the playoff?
– Man, he was an incredible character. Jos really understood me and what made me tick. He gave me the absolute honest truth at exactly the times when I needed it, never more so than at Muirfield in 2002. Just before we were about to start the playoff, he took me to one side and told me in no uncertain terms to pull my finger out of my backside! He told me to do what he had trained me to do. He taught me to think in a certain way and I believe that what we worked on together that year helped me win that Open Championship, no question. We made a good team for a number of years. I’d have to check my records, but I’d say in our time together we won more than 25 tournaments around the world. He was a person with talent and integrity, a good man and a special friend. He’s sadly missed, not just by me but by a lot of people.
– 10 years later, you would repeat the feat at Royal Lytham & St Annes. Although it was sad what happened with Adam Scott, we can’t take away from your great performance on Sunday, at your 42 years. I understand that Sherylle Calder had a lot of influence that week, right? We would like to know what were the different factors that contributed to your game. Could you describe the emotions you feel when hearing your name followed by «Champion Golfer of the Year»?
– Thanks. Yes, that was an incredible week. The Sunday of the Open Championship was one of the greatest days of my career. You know, I saved my best till the end. Playing that tough back nine in four under par, given the circumstances, makes it one of the best rounds of my career. It was a lot of fun and the putt on 18 was as sweet as they come, right into the heart of the cup. That was an amazing feeling and the crowd’s reaction was incredible. They are the moments you dream about. As you say, what happened to Scotty was tough. He’s a good buddy of mine and I really felt for him. I’ve been on the other end more times than I have been on the winning end so I knew what he was feeling. But I said to him afterwards he’d win a major soon and he didn’t let me down! He went and won the Masters the following year and that didn’t surprise me.
– Speaking of majors, I can’t pass up your «love-hate» story with Augusta National. Your 2nd places (in 2000 and 2004. Both events were won by Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, respectively) and your “yips”, in the 2016 edition, explain this. Could we know what things did you try before, in order to «be friends» with the place?
– I guess it was a ‘love hate’ type of thing with Augusta. I have the utmost respect for the tournament and for the members. But in recent years it wasn’t giving me anything and then you ask yourself, how many times do you want to run into a wall? I don’t have any bad feelings about it. It’s a magical place and when I look back now, at least I can say that I was in the mix when the crowds were going nuts, I was hitting good shots and my opponents are hitting good shots. But I’m done with it. And it’s done with me.
– It is impossible to forget your memorable battles with Tiger Woods. The 2000 playoff (in Hawaii) and the definition of the 2003 Presidents Cup will remain in history, regardless of the results. At the beginning of the interview, I mentioned the Brooks Koepka vs. Bryson DeChambeau rivalry. To it, I could add the confrontations between Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed. Have you ever made a «battle» like that, «out of the ropes», and we haven’t heard about it?
– No. I don’t think so. Obviously, Tiger and I had a lot of great battles over the years, but we’ve always been friends. We have the greatest respect for one another so it’s always been a friendly rivalry, I think you could say. Would we have liked you to follow this feature? Obviously. When you see him on a golf course, the applause is inevitable. In turn, when one hears / reads it, exactly the same thing happens.
Would we have liked this feature to continue? Obviously. When you see him on a golf course, the applause is inevitable. When one hears / reads it, exactly the same thing happens. Ernie Els is the same both for his colleagues and for us, who are looking to interview him. Ernie Els doesn’t show off his accomplishments … and look, he owns a lot of them! Ernie Els is an ambassador for our sport. The course at Bahamas, home of the traditional Hero World Challenge, is just a great example of the innumerable number of designs under his authorship, all around the world. Somehow, he dug them out to make his mark. A mark that will be undeniable (for example) for an International team that has set a trend, in the Presidents Cup, due to the variety of its cultures and the chemistry between their members. Ernie Els is synonymous with our sport.
I hope they were moved like me, after his words. Thanks to him, we had the privilege of knowing the necessary conditions to be part of history. And, as you have seen, there is no magic recipe. Ernie Els made us understand the importance of knowing THE STRUCTURE OF SIMPLIFICATION.
Thank you so much to Ernie and everyone who helped me fulfill this dream!
Matías Miguel Torge
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