Johannesburg: It’s Sunday December 5, 1999 and Ernie Els is sipping champagne in the pressroom at Sun City with every reason to celebrate.
After seven lean years of trying – in the sense that he had come close but never won it – Els had finally broken through for victory in the Nedbank Golf Challenge, winning it by smashing a record that looked destined to stand forever and a day. He had rounds of 67, 66, a record-equalling 64 and a 66 for a 25-under-par 263. Nick Price shot 264 in 1994 and few believed that would ever be beaten.
“I can’t describe how I feel,” Els said as he savoured the bubbly, sharing a few bottles with members of the media. “When I walked up to the 18th green I had goosebumps from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I never felt that before, even when I won my two US Opens.”
Els won by five shots that year from Colin Montgomerie and it was the beginning of a remarkable era for the Big Easy in the NGC when, in the period from 1999 to 2002, he won the tournament three times and in the other year finished second in a playoff. His combined aggregate for those four years was a mind-blowing 86-under-par.
Now, after an absence of two years, the 44-year-old four-times major champion is back at Sun City for the new-look 30-man Nedbank Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club course from Thursday. “I’ve just enjoyed a quiet time at home, working on my fitness and recharging the batteries after probably one of the busiest years in a while,” Els wrote on his website.
“The family did make one significant decision, though, and that’s for me to play in this year’s Challenge. It looks like a strong field this year and I’m really looking forward to coming back and playing such a special event. Obviously this tournament holds some really wonderful memories for me and the highlight was that period from 1999 to 2002. That was a good little stretch right there!
“That third win in 2002 included a final-round 63 – still to this day one of the best rounds of my life. It was one of those beautiful golfing days where you see every shot crystal clear in your mind’s eye, you’re relaxed, you have control of the golf ball and the hole looks twice its normal size. Trust me, you don’t forget those rounds.”
As from this year, the NGC forms part of the European Tour. Ernie finds himself in top spot on the Tour’s career money list with e29 467 156, ahead of Lee Westwood e29 291 837, Colin Montgomerie e24 477 508, Padraig Harrington e23 801 121 and Retief Goosen e21 851 642.
Els at the Nedbank Challenge:
This will be a record 18th appearance for him, more than any other player (the next best is Bernhard Langer with 14). His last appearance was in 2010.
He made his debut at age 23 in 1992.
He’s won the Nedbank Golf Challenge on three occasions (1999, 2000, 2002), and finished second four times. Two other players have also won three titles (Nick Price, David Frost).
His stroke average in 16 appearances (64 rounds) is 69.93.
He has the Nedbank Golf Challenge scoring record (25-under-par in 1999) and has shot the most sub-par rounds (46).
His lowest round is 63 (2002).
He is also the tournament’s leading all-time money winner ($7 971 000). - Cape Times