Changing The Cycle
A history with alcohol gave Ernie Els the push to pull back from the party life-- and win another major
Twenty years ago, I sat down with 22-year-old Ernie Els in the Johannesburg offices of Sam Feldman, the first in a long, gray line of Ernie's agents. Els had yet to play in either a Masters or a U.S. Open but had won everything at home. "People may go 'Ooh,' " he told me, "but I like a beer with my friends."
After Els won the 1994 U.S. Open at 24, I asked Payne Stewart how Ernie was getting along at Lake Nona in Florida. "He's had a beer," Stewart said, laughing, "with every member of the club." Payne meant it, of course, as a compliment.
In the rollicking or, more often, mean-spirited whispering around Els and alcohol ever since, a pertinent piece of information has been left out. It's what begins to explain the change in Ernie this year that was at least a factor in his triumph at Royal Lytham & St. Annes:
If not for courage against drink, Els would have been a rugby or tennis player. He would never have been a golfer at all.
In a culture of alcohol on the hard side of South Africa, Ernie's dad, Neels, had a better excuse for drinking than most. Neels' father died of cancer at 43, calling him at bedside to the brutal transport (trucking) business and placing six younger siblings in his care. He was 18. ("To take over that business at that age," Ernie says, "can you imagine?") The youngest child, a 4½-year-old boy, was run over by a car and killed in front of the house. Their mother was never the same after that. She died at 50.
"You need a new hobby," Ernie Vermaak, Hettie's father and Ernie's namesake, told Neels, dragging him to a driving range. He had never given golf a thought. As a boy, he stuck to men's games. "But I started to enjoy it," he said, "so much more than drinking."
That was the beginning for Ernie Els. On Dec. 12, 1969, 56 days after Ernie was born, Neels had his last drink. "I made a promise to God," he told me by a practice putting green in 2002, "and He gave me something back. He gave me Ernie."
"Really," Ernie says softly. He hadn't heard that before.
It's three weeks after Lytham. We're sitting at Els' Florida headquarters in Jupiter, just around the corner from the Bear's Club. The claret jug is on the table between us. "Wherever I've gone, I've put it on the table," he says, "and we just kind of stare at it."
Neels "changed the cycle," as Ernie puts it, "and he's a better man for it. My dad is just an amazing, amazing human being. For myself, for my family and for my future, it's better for me to change the cycle, too. It was always in the back of my mind, you know--it's in your family--but I can't say I ever really worried about it. Never. For all the fun, don't forget, I always knew when to put my golf balls down and practice. I'd say I'm just at a different stage of life now. I'm older. I've moved away from the parties. You know, around here, there's one every night if you want it. In my 20s, I probably would have been there 80 percent of the time. But I'm in my 40s now [43 in October]. I've got my life. I'm very serious about my business. I've got my family. And I've got my game. Excessive drinking is not good for my health, my family or my game. There has definitely been a change, and I feel better for it. The boys from the club will say, 'Come over Friday and we'll have a couple of beers.' 'No thanks; I feel too good. I want to go practice. I want to be with my kids.' If I don't have one more party for the rest of my life, I'm still ahead of the game."
He laughs at that.
Truth be told, the fellowship, not the booze, was the allure.
"Even before I turned pro," Els says, "when I was an amateur in the Army with Gary [Gary Todd, a long-standing friend], we had such unbelievable times, great times. But I would say we were a fun group. We weren't angry drunks. We liked to laugh. Not to get pissed off at life and go nuts."