CAPE TOWN - Ernie Els, tournament player-host at this week’s South African Open at Glendower, is celebrating a kind of “25th anniversary” at the European Tour event as it was exactly a quarter of a century ago, in January 1992, that he won his first SA Open.
That year Els, then a blond, gangling 23-year-old, blitzed Houghton in 15-under-par 273 to win by three. It was his first big win in the professional ranks.
“I was in the lead through 54 holes and I hardly slept the night before the final round as I was playing the course mentally in my mind,” he would later reveal. “I was determined not to let my chance slip.”
And he didn’t, saying afterwards: “Hopefully, this is the start of a lot more success.”
And how true was that?
In quick succession that summer the “Kempton Park Kid” won the South African PGA at Wanderers on 271 and the SA Masters at Dainfern on a 275 aggregate. The Big Three of SA golf were in the bag. He also won the Royal Swazi Open soon afterwards and topped the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit.
He would arrive big-time just two years later on the world stage when in a golden 1994 he captured the Dubai Desert Classic, US Open, World Match Play, Sarazen World Open and Johnnie Walker World Championship to become world No 1.
This birdie-machine, known briefly in his younger days as “Late Night Els” for his propensity to let his hair down on the odd occasion, was now the “Big Easy”, and he had quickly attracted an “Ernie’s Army” of supporters all around the world.
Els’s stats as far as tournament wins go are well-known: Over 70 worldwide successes, including four Majors, three Nedbank Golf Challenges, and an astonishing seven World Match Play titles. It’s a wonderful record.
So, spare a thought for 48-year-old Ernie this week as he entertains all and sundry as tournament host and bids to win his sixth South African Open.
Come to think of it, his old buddy and teammate Retief Goosen (they won two Dunhill Cups together, along with David Frost) is also in this week’s line-up. He’s also 48 and he was also starting to make noises and win tournaments about 25 years ago.
Two-time US Open champion Goosen would reach No 2 in the world in his prime.
Retief’s after his third SA Open crown and it’s great to have two sweet-swinging golfers, who aren’t too far off 50 and who have done South Africa so proud over the years, playing in this year’s SA Open.
Good luck, guys. May your drives go straight and may your birdie putts drop.