Q&A with “The Big Easy,” Ernie Els

You would never know Ernie Els is having a bad year, given his good nature and quiet confidence that epitomize his 24-year professional career. Always known for his gentle and powerful swing, Els is as much a businessman and philanthropist as he is a Hall of Fame golfer. But if you’re discounting the big South African at this year’s Open Championship, you might want to re-think that position.

“To be honest, I always like my chances in the Open,” said Els in an exclusive interview with California Golf News + Travel. “It’s my favorite tournament of the year and I feel like I can be competitive there for many years to come.”

The last time the Open Championship was held at Royal Liverpool, Els finished third behind an emotional Tiger Woods, who won his first major since the passing of his father, Earl Woods, two months prior to the event. This year, Els will be counting on past success and hopefully some improved putting (where is currently ranked 95th on the PGA Tour) in his quest to hoist the Claret Jug for a third time.

By your standards, probably a slow start to the year. How would you sum up your play so far?

The results don’t look great, but overall we’re in pretty good shape. We’re just working hard on getting the short putter to work in tournament play. We knew that would take time. The positive thing for me is that it feels more and more comfortable with every week I play, which is why I’ve played so much golf this year. You can’t replicate those feelings on the practice putting green, you need to get out there and do it under the gun.

You put 14 new Adams clubs in the bag at the start of the season … any adjustments during the year or is everything great with the clubs?

Yeah, it’s all good, man. The new Adams XTD Tour Irons are the most comfortable iron that I’ve played in my career. The first two weeks in the bag were at L.A. (Northern Trust Open) and then at the (WGC Accenture) Match Play, which I came close to winning, so to have a club in the bag that quickly and have good results says a lot. The only thing we need to dial-in on a little more is the distances, because the irons go such a long way; I’ve been hitting 6-irons 210 yards. I’m not used to those numbers! I’m telling my pro-am partners, if you want some distance you’ve got to get down to the pro shop and get some of these XTD irons. They’re amazing.

You’re just two years removed from your second British Open title, and back in 2006 when the Open was held at Royal Liverpool, you had a very solid third place finish. Do you like your chances this year?

Hoylake is a great golf course and I’m definitely looking forward to getting back there. I had some success there as an amateur back in the late 1980s and, as you say, had a pretty good week in the Open in 2006. There’s a lot of risk and reward on this golf course, which makes it a wonderful layout.

There were some changes from the last time the Open Championship was played at Hoylake. Have you had any practice rounds or will you see the course for the first time in July?

No, I haven’t seen the changes. I’ve got some time off after the US Open, so we’ll try to get up there for at least one practice round, maybe two.

You can obviously get a variety of weather at the Open Championship. Do you prefer tougher weather conditions to separate from the field or would you rather have calm conditions?

I always prefer a bit of breeze. That’s the way links golf was supposed to be played and I love playing different shots, moving the ball different ways through the air, high shots and low bump-and-runs. That’s my kind of golf.

Can you tell us what’s new at your winery?

We’re producing some great wines – six reds and two whites – and successfully growing the brand globally. People are really sitting up and taking notice of us. The wine industry likes what we’re doing, we’re winning some prestigious awards, and people are buying our wines all around the world, so that shows we’re doing a lot of things right.

You trust the day-to-day operation to Louis Strydom (Winemaker and Managing Director), but you’ve been doing this for 15 years … can you discuss your role at the winery?

Whenever I am at the wine cellar, I sit and taste with Louis and I speak with him regularly when I am on the road about the current business situation and the strategy moving forward. I like to know what is happening the whole time; for me, that personal involvement is absolutely fundamental.

Any thoughts of a second winery outside of South Africa?

No, that’s not part of our current plans.

You’ve been operating for over 10 years now. Is it harder than you imagined, more enjoyable than you thought?

I wouldn’t say harder. We knew right from the outset that it was a very competitive business, but yes it’s very enjoyable. It’s something we’re really passionate about and we want to do things right and continue to produce great wines right across the price range. You have to focus on producing a great product, then you can be successful in any business, whether it’s Ernie Els Wines or Ernie Els Design.

You’re only a year away from opening The Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter, Fla. as part of your Autism Foundation. You must be very proud of that accomplishment?

Yes, we broke ground on site in Jupiter at the beginning of March and it was an incredibly exciting day not only for me, but for Liezl, our children and the whole team at Els for Autism. This Center was just a dream a few years ago and now it’s starting to become a reality, thanks to the generous and collective support of our friends and donors. Liezl and I have genuinely been touched by the level of support and the extent to which people have wanted to jump on board with us.

We know you started your foundation due to your son Ben’s autism; however, it is very clear your intention is to help as many families and children you can who are affected.

Absolutely, that’s the whole idea with what we’re doing at the Els Center of Excellence. Obviously, Jupiter is the physical hub and it’s going to be amazing, but our global outreach program and various other initiatives will help individuals and families on the autism spectrum all around the world.

Your wife Liezl is also a driving force in the foundation as well as the new center.

Liezl is the driving force. None of this would have happened without her commitment and passion for this project. She’s incredible and she more than anyone else deserves the credit for getting us to this important milestone.

You’ve had some recent battles with tour officials either regarding the long putter or the amount of tournaments required on the European Tour, but it seems like golfers don’t have a united voice on these types of issues. Do you think the players are properly consulted on both Tours?

I wouldn’t say we’ve had battles. As one of the senior players out here it’s natural that we get consulted on a lot of things and we’re only ever going to give our honest opinions. I think the Tours appreciate that. You’re never going to get everyone to agree on everything, but that’s okay. That’s life. You talk about the long putter. I don’t have to agree with the decision, but I respect the decision and I do believe the ruling bodies are looking out for the best interests of the game.

As a Hall of Fame member your legacy is set. What keeps you motivated week-to-week?

I turned pro just after the Air Force back in 1989 when I was 20 and I am 44 now, so you could say this is the third stage of my career, but I really believe that I have a couple of major wins in me. I have everything sorted business-wise, with a great team of people in place, which allows me to concentrate and just play golf. This is sport, it can be finicky and funny sometimes, but I’m still giving it as good a shot as I can. There’s nothing stopping me.

Do you see yourself playing the Champions Tour when you become eligible?

I always used to say no, but as I get closer to 50 maybe I might start to change my mind [laughs]. We’ll see. I am enjoying my golf, and you know, after maybe 55, I will just go and sell some hotdogs down on the beach at Herolds Bay!

What goals do you have in the next five years regarding your golf game?

Basically, work hard and stay competitive. As we’ve seen, you can’t write off the guys in their 40s and actually I think one day someone is going to win a major in their 50s. Why not me? That’s how I look at it. Tom Watson almost did it at Turnberry and to see that is very inspiring for players of our generation.

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