Clinton van der Berg.
Has there ever been a more consistent, more prolific sportsman in South African history?

Amid the avalanche of social media that swirled around last weekend, one remarkable update jumped out: Els’ tied seventh place in Malaysia ensured his 300th career top 10, the most by any golfer in history.

With 71 wins scattered among those 300 top 10s, it demonstrates a startling conversion rate that for some years ranked him among the best in the world.

Since his first big win, at the South African Open in 1992, Els has gone on to establish himself as one of the modern greats, his “Big Easy” moniker perfect because of his liquid swing and easy-going manner.

Els’ SA Open win got him into The Open and the US Open and in 1994 he duly delivered at the US Open, repeating the feat three years later.

It was a golden period that culminated with victory at The Open in 2002, making him one of the hottest golfers on the circuit.

If Els was always a fierce competitor who hated losing, it was a trait at odds with his laid-back persona.

Despite all his years campaigning and living in America, he was always the “boykie from Germiston”. He played hard and partied harder, and never pretended otherwise.

He had legendary tear-ups, many of them with caddie Ricci Roberts. The pair bicker like an old married couple, but they have shared many wins and many beers.

Stories abound of how Els would clean up on the Sunshine Tour and then blow half his winnings at the bar.

He knows how to celebrate in a way familiar to South Africans, who adore Els for his earthy nature.

The champion golfer always had a profound sense of self, never better than when he went head-to-head with Tiger Woods in the gloaming at the 2003 Presidents Cup at Fancourt.

Els was a knot of nerves, but he matched Woods shot for shot until the dark of night forced the tie.

Els will now captain the International Teams at this year’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne and will again be up against his old rival. It should be a stonking battle.

Ten years after his Open win, he managed another, in 2012, when he shot a 32 on the back nine and reeled in Adam Scott, who blew a four-shot lead.

But the Masters always eluded Els, who famously snarled, “I won’t miss the f***ing place.”

A 50th birthday looms, in October, as does a run on the Champions Tour. Els will bring his fun and flair to the party, and a world of good. The Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation does tremendous work, helping mould golfers like Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, and it can be reasonably said that he single-handedly helped inspire a generation of fine SA golfers.

Moreover, his Els for Autism Foundation, established in honour of his son Ben, has raised millions for autism sufferers. Nelson Mandela once hitched a ride on his private jet. All he asked Els about was his son, Mandela’s love of family being a constant theme in their interactions.

The golfer’s late grandmother always asked when he would get a proper job. She needn’t have worried. Els may be approaching his twilight years, but South African sport hasn’t known a greater entertainer or a more popular, more-loved athlete.

@clintonv


Sunday Tribune

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