Out of Africa, Els has a world to win


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- For Ernie Els, just getting to play on the American PGA Tour is a dream come true. For many who follow that tour, Els looks like the player they have dreamed about for years.

"I've wanted to play there as long as I can remember," he said. "Growing up watching Gary Player on television, Nick Price at the Masters, the way they prepare the courses, run the tournaments. It's where I always dreamed of playing."

Els, 25, who is in the midst of his first full year on the tour, was just a promising young player until last June, when he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Combined with several European tour wins and a victory in the World Match Play Championships, his effort last year designated him as the Next Great Player.

Els hits the ball to such a distance with such apparent ease that many feel once experience teaches him a bit more finesse, only his mental approach is expected to stand between him and stardom.

Heading into this week's Masters, his game appears tailor-made for several green jackets. Indeed, he finished eighth in his Masters debut last year.

The heavy weight of seemingly unlimited potential rests easily on the broad shoulders of Els, 6 feet 4.

When he talks of the importance of his Open win, he said it is not that it vaulted him to the top tier of the world's golfers (he's currently fifth in the world rankings), but that it gave him a 10-year exemption from qualifying for the PGA Tour.

He said he can't forget that, not long ago, the tour didn't want him. Els turned pro in 1989 and went to the PGA qualifying school in 1990. He missed the last cut, so he headed to the European tour to refine his game.

Like Player, Els comes from the southern tip of Africa, an area that has been fertile ground for golf stars, producing No. 1-ranked Price, David Frost, Mark McNulty and a number of other top professionals.

Despite Price's top ranking, it is Els who causes the greatest excitement among golfers in his home country.

Els is the spitting image of the quintessential American sports star, the type of athlete who could be hitting baseballs over the left-field fence at Camden Yards if he weren't hitting golf balls nearly three times that far.

He has the imposing size of John Wayne and the self-effacing personality of Jimmy Stewart, plus a shock of blond hair and an aw-shucks, Tom Sawyer grin.

But those are images by and for Americans. In South Africa, his clipped, accented English lets you know that he's an Afrikaner, a self-described Boerkie, or descendant of the Dutch farmers who settled in the region 150 years ago.

As a group, the Afrikaners are blamed for imposing and stubbornly defending apartheid, the system of racial separation that oppressed the black majority here for more than 40 years.

But Els proclaims himself part of the new South Africa. "Suddenly, we are the most popular people in the world," he said of the reception he has received since last year's elections. "I give full credit to President Mandela. I have never met the man, but I think he is doing a fantastic job."

The divisions in South Africa were not only among racial lines, but also tribal. Among the whites, that meant the English and the Afrikaners, the groups that fought in the Boer War at the turn of the century.

Even sports were unofficially divided. The Afrikaners played rugby, the English cricket and the blacks and mixed-race people soccer.

With English-speaking Player the golf superstar of South Africa -- and Bobby Locke before him -- golf was considered an English game when 8-year-old Ernie was pulling his father's golf bag around.

"When I first started playing junior tournaments, I would say three-quarters of the competitors were English-speaking," Els said. "I didn't speak a word of English when I started. I had grown up speaking Afrikaans. That's how I learned to speak English, playing in tournaments."

Els' development as a golfer is the ultimate frustration for any hacker who ever has tried to figure out the mysteries of the swing. He was a natural. He has never taken a lesson, having just picked up a club and started hitting them a mile.

At 16, Els became the youngest ever to win the South African Amateur, younger than Locke or Player. That's when his father, Neels, took the tennis court out of the backyard of the family house in suburban Johannesburg and put in a golf green, complete with sand traps.

After high school, Els did his required two years in the South African military, mainly playing golf and adding bulk to his then-skinny frame. When he came out, he turned pro and made his first tour bid.

Despite his seasoning in Europe, and on South Africa's December-February (summer in the Southern Hemisphere) tour that he vows to continue supporting, Els says he was stunned to find himself starting the last round of the U.S. Open with a two-shot lead.

"I just didn't think I had the game for that," he said. "I didn't know how I was supposed to play. Should I be playing for pars? Should I be trying to make birdies? I had never been in that position before."

The lack of confidence showed. Leading going into the last three holes, he three-putted, missed a short birdie putt and badly hooked a drive. That set up an 18-hole playoff with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts that Els didn't so much win as the others lost.

Afterward, Els was almost apologetic, saying he hoped people wouldn't expect too much, too soon from him.

"People started looking at me as some sort of great player," he said. "I was still the same guy I was the week before."

But in the ensuing weeks, the opinion of others began to seep into his psyche. "I hadn't really changed, but I began to think maybe I should think a little bigger, that I had gone up a step. I had won the U.S. Open, and that was a tough one. So I gained that confidence.

"I've always had a tendency to get a little down on myself, especially if something goes wrong. You look at the greats of the game; even if they make a few mistakes, they never give up. That's the attitude I've learned in the past few months.

"Now, I think when I'm playing well, no matter who's playing, I can win any tournament."


What: 59th Masters

When: Tomorrow through Sunday. Practice round today.

Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

Course: Par 72, 6925 yards

Field: Includes former champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and 1994 winner Jose Maria Olazabal.

TV: USA (tomorrow-Friday, 4-6:30 p.m.), CBS (Saturday, 3:30-6 p.m.; Sunday, 4-7 p.m.)

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