To say that Ernie Els is a golfing icon is somewhat of an understatement. From the moment he burst onto the international golfing scene, winning the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, until the present day, the charismatic South African has remained ever-present at the top of leaderboards around the world.
Not only has he built a reputation for being one of the smoothest swingers in the game – capturing four Grand Slam titles, a record seven World Match Play titles and 70 professional career victories along the way – but Els has also created his own empire, becoming a major player in both the wine and golf design businesses.
We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with “The Big Easy” at the launch of his first ever-golf course creation in South East Asia – The Els Club Teluk Datai, located on the paradise island of Langkawi. Typically relaxed, Ernie was in great spirits as he hosted over 200 dignitaries and the world’s media, which included playing nine holes in the company of Her Majesty Raja Permaisuri Agong Tuanku Hajjah Haminah, the Queen of Malaysia.
Ernie, we’re sitting here in what can only be described as paradise. You must be immensely proud of the magnificent layout you have created at The Els Club Teluk Datai…
This is, without doubt, the most spectacular golf course setting I have had the pleasure of working on and I am incredibly excited about the prospect of inviting the first visitors to come and enjoy what has already been voted the region’s “Best Golf Course” at the recent 2014 Asia-Pacific Property Awards.
The course is truly breathtaking and I am delighted with what we have achieved here. I endeavoured to make the most of this unique location, nestled between ancient rainforest and the Andaman Sea, and I believe that we have done just that.
It was an honour to hit the opening tee shot alongside Her Majesty and I would personally like to thank all of those in attendance for their support in what we are confident is set to become one of the world’s most revered golf course designs.
You are a huge crowd favourite in Asia from the years you’ve played out here. Can you tell us why you chose Malaysia for your third Els Club project?
Well, Malaysia really is a hotbed for golf and tourism. When I think of the world’s most exotic destinations, it’s hard to look past this country that is blessed with such stunning paradise islands as Langkawi. Look around you: we’ve got the rainforest, we’ve got the beautiful ocean, jaw-dropping beaches and of course beautiful hotels like the Datai Langkawi, where we are fortunate to be staying this week. It’s just a wonderful spot. I speak to the tourists that come here, some of them for over 20 years, and they love what we’ve done with the golf course. It really is world-class now and I think the addition of The Els Club Teluk Datai will help draw a lot of tourism and golf enthusiasts to Malaysia. They are really growing the sport of golf in Malaysia; our design group is currently busy down in the south of the country at Desaru Coast with a much bigger scale project that will open in 2016.
The course is quite unique in that it doesn’t feature any bunkers. Can you tell us why this is the case and what challenges the site presented to you, with it being located in a one-million-year-old rainforest...
Well, we have worked on lava rock in Mauritius, on coral reef in the Bahamas, on rolling hills in South Africa, but never in a rainforest, so this was certainly a first for the whole team. Obviously, the first thing we had to take into consideration was the amount of rainfall we get here in Langkawi. Looking at the previous course that was here and just walking around during the first site visit with the guys from Troon Golf, we saw a lot of standing water all over the place. So the first thing we needed to do was find some kind of drainage system. To do this, we literally opened up the creek to the river almost out of the mountain where the water comes through to the golf course. It also dawned on us that first afternoon, when a storm came down and flooded the existing course, that it just wasn’t practical to have to drain out bunkers every time it rained. I think it’s the first course we have ever built without one bunker. It’s quite friendly and I don’t think you’ll miss playing out of bunkers.
Whilst we have you, Ernie, we wanted to ask you some other questions about your career, starting right back at the beginning. We believe you played rugby, cricket and quite a bit of tennis before totally focusing on golf. What, ultimately, made you choose your clubs over everything else?
I just, for some reason, loved golf more than all the other sports. Rugby, you get hurt and I don’t like to get hurt. Cricket I played right through school. I stopped playing rugby at 16 – my dad really told me not to play anymore. Tennis I still play, my daughter plays and I’ve picked it up again. I’m a shadow of my former self from back in the day, but I still enjoy the game. In South Africa, we had great weather, so we could play any sport at any time of the year growing up, so I was very lucky.
You struggled for a while before making your way on to the PGA Tour. What were the challenges for young Ernie back then?
Well, I look at youngsters now trying to get on the PGA Tour: the competition is only getting stronger and stronger from right around the world, and there are some seriously great players. I was fortunate to get on the South African Tour and tried the European Tour a little bit in the early days, but for some reason I kept missing in America. Then I got a card in Europe and started making some waves there. I then had some very good breaks in South Africa. I won the South African Open and that got me some invites to play in the Sates and then I won the U.S. Open in 1994. So a lot of good things happened to me at an early age, as well as a lot of luck.
You once described 1992 as the year that changed your life and effectively turned things around for you. What was so significant about your achievements that year?
Well, that year was the year when I won the South African Open and even today the South African Open gets you into events around the world, as well as the Open Championship. I also won the South African PGA and the Masters and before that Gary Player was the only guy to do that. So a very good year for me in South Africa got me a tour card in Europe and then I followed that up by finishing fifth at the Open the next year, so everything happened very quickly in about a two-year span that started with the ‘92 SA Open.
You are the proud holder of four majors and 70 worldwide professional tournament wins. Do you have a favourite?
Any time you lift a trophy it’s a wonderful and memorable moment. The joy is indescribable, but to pick one of the majors over the other is very hard to do. When I was young, I was very cocky and used to think I’m going to win them all by nomination. I thought the Masters was going to be the first one I’d win and then the Open, and then the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. Well, I haven’t won the Masters so far and I haven’t won the PGA, so I’m going to try to win the
So you’ve played around the world... do you have a favourite course or maybe a course where you are the crowd favourite?
Well, it definitely used to be Wentworth, especially when we played the World Match Play there. I won that a record seven times and my kids were born there. We’ve still got the house there, but we live in Florida a bit more now. That’s one of my really favourite venues and the course certainly likes me. The course that I like the most right now, though, is in Langkawi, but you knew I was going to say that!
Who would you say is your toughest competitor?
The game itself. Through the years we’ve had our ups and downs. Back in the day, it was definitely Tiger Woods: he was by far the best. It was tough for me because I felt that I could really be the best player in the world and I was for a short time on paper, but Tiger was really the man to beat. He was a very difficult competitor. Nowadays it’s the game and the youngsters, you know Rickie [Fowler], Adam Scott, we can go on and on, Jordan Spieth, there are so many other really good guys, really good players, but I really enjoy their company. But I’m in a different stage of my career. I feel the wins aren’t coming as frequently as they used to, but I really enjoy my game and my time out there.
You just mentioned Tiger… tell us about the “Big Five” era. Did you have a game plan going into tournaments, knowing that Tiger, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, they were all bringing their A-games as well?
That was a great time: we were in the prime of our careers. We still play sporadically like we used to back in the day but, you know, I am 45 now, Tiger is nearly 40 and Retief is the same age as me, but that was a golden era for us. We won a lot of tournaments around the world. I won, just in that five-year period, over 27 events around the world. But Tiger was the dominant figure, you know. He was winning the most majors and that’s how you become the guy who’s a great player in the game. I got to win only four, Phil’s got five, Retief’s got two, Vijay has three and then Tiger has 14, so it just shows you how dominant he was. He was quite a force to be reckoned with.
You once said you had a three-year plan to try to dethrone Tiger, and then said you, if not anyone else, would be the one to do it. What happened there?
Well, I felt really good after a win at the South African Open, I think in ‘06 or something. I had a very bad knee injury in 2005 and that put me off track and I really wanted to re-dedicate myself to the game. I don’t normally talk so big, or make such bold statements like that but, you know, in South Africa I was feeling that I really needed a goal to go at and I felt I needed a plan, so I made that plan public and I came close. I didn’t quite close the deal and it was maybe something I might regret saying, but I wanted to have a goal to go at.
What still motivates you – is it the competition?
Yes, I love competition, I love doing anything if it’s competition: if its table tennis or tennis against my daughter, whoever, even a pool game, anything. Competition is what it’s all about. I’ve been competing since I was 10 years old in a lot of different sports – it’s in my blood. But, nowadays, I compete for myself. I’m still trying, I want to try and win one or two more majors before I’m totally done, so that still motivates me and means I am able to play at a high level.
You have had many big moments in your career, but what would you say has been the highlight of your three decades in the sport?
In golf, so many things have happened. Obviously wins have been great. The majors are undoubtedly the highlights of my career. I’ve won five South African Opens, which is really great, the Match Plays I’ve won and so on. I can’t really pick one event, but through that whole period of time it’s really the friends I’ve made and now getting into golf design is a real passion of mine that I want to grow. Here at Langkawi this week, we are completing another phase in building an Els Club brand around the world and that has been a lot of fun to be part of. This week I met and played golf with the Queen of Malaysia, which is amazing for a guy from South Africa.
You mentioned a couple of times that you would like to own a bar or a restaurant in the Caribbean when you retire. Is that still the plan?
That again? You are bringing some good quotes out. I said that back in the early nineties, right before the U.S. Open. The media asked me, “What will happen if you win this U.S. Open?” I said, “Well, I’d just take the money and go to the Caribbean, open a bar and that would be that.” Well, that was 21 years ago and we are still trying to win more tournaments, as well as building golf courses all over the world, so I guess that bar is gonna have to wait!