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Ernie Els will reach another major milestone in his career when he makes his 30th Open appearance at Royal St George’s this week.
It is a journey that began in 1989 when Els made his Open debut at Royal Troon after winning the SA Amateur title that year and missed the cut with rounds of 72 and 76. And it is a journey that saw him win the Claret Jug in 2002 and 2012 and finish second in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Since that first appearance in 1989, he has only twice not played in the Open, and that was in 1990 and 1991 (there was no tournament in 2020).
This week, Els will lead a group of 13 South Africans challenging for Major glory on the English links, including Jaco Ahlers, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Dean Burmester, Dylan Frittelli, Branden Grace, Justin Harding, Garrick Higgo, Shaun Norris, Louis Oosthuizen, JC Ritchie, Erik van Rooyen and Daniel van Tonder.
Louis de Jager had to withdraw after contracting Covid-19.
It seems only apt that the man who has flown the flag for SA golf worldwide for decades, and who is the country’s last Major champion after winning the 2012 Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes, should lead such a strong group of South Africans in golf’s oldest and perhaps most celebrated Major.
And it brings him back to a style of the game he has always loved, from the minute he first set foot upon the links in 1987 as a member of a touring SA amateur team.
“I don’t know if you’re born with it or you learn it. All I know is that I took to it like a duck to water. Links golf is the foundation of the game, and I just think I had a good feel for it from the start,” he says.
Els has gone as far as to say that links golf brings something different out in him, even to the point of feeling like he hits the ball more solidly.
“I love hitting low three irons … Even with today’s equipment, if the weather is bad on a links course, that’s a true leveller.”
His love of the links has certainly showed in his Open appearances. After that missed cut in 1989, he returned in 1992 to finish tied fifth at Muirfield and then tied sixth the next year at Royal St George’s. He has described his fifth place in the 1992 Open as the door that opened for the incredible career he would go on to have.
It is hardly surprising that The Open is Els’s most successful Major with 13 top 10s. Perhaps even more impressive is that of those 13 top 10s, nine have been top fives.
The Open and the historic links courses it is played on have combined for some of the greatest triumphs and deepest heartbreaks for Els. But through all the highs and lows, Els’s love for this Major has remained constant.
Speaking after his triumph at Royal Lytham and St Annes in 2012, Els said: “It’s not the biggest trophy in the world, but it’s definitely the oldest one that we play for and definitely the most special one. This is it. This is where the game started. Everybody that’s anybody ever in the game has got his name on this, so it means a lot. Every single name [on the Claret Jug] has got a story.”
And the story of Els and The Open has certainly been one of the most captivating.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.