When a gum-popping Ernie Els won the 1994 U.S. Open at the tender age of 24, the South African was golf's next big thing. Now he's one of its elder statesmen. "Things change, and you learn from it," Els, 41, told us. What hasn't changed? "My desire. I still burn inside to win. The fire is still there." Here's what the winner of 64 events on four continents has learned about life, golf and finding happiness.
BRING YOUR 'A' GAME TO THE
If you don't have your best game at the U.S. Open, don't show up. Your heart's gonna get broken. I've gone to many U.S. Opens not playing well, and it forced me to reevaluate my game and almost start from scratch. No other tournament tests every part of your game, from driving to putting. On a scale of 1 to 10, every part of your game has to be at least an 8. Otherwise, you're gonna have a lot of tears.
FOCUS ON THE IMPACT ZONE
Growing up in South Africa, I learned a lot about golf from my father and grandfather. My grandfather instilled the discipline and education you need before you play--I knew about the Rules, how to behave, how not to behave. My dad taught me how to play. He worked a lot. When we played, it was very special, because he wasn't home much. He taught me that everything important in the swing happens in a 12-inch space -- six inches ahead of the ball, six inches after. Everybody has a different backswing and follow-through, but impact looks the same. My dad didn't have a big swing, but he really muscled the ball. He taught me to focus on that one-foot zone, because that's where it all happens.
BE TRUE TO YOURSELF
Am I still competitive? Very. I have an intense streak. It runs through my family's bloodline. Beneath my easygoing manner there's a desire to win, to achieve. I have a way of not letting it show, but the fire is still there. We all come to the game differently, with different goals that drive us. We all act differently on the course. But I won't be something I'm not. I don't mind a guy being intense, emotional. I'm intense too, but in a way that nobody sees. What matters is that, deep down, the fire burns.
AGE IS ONLY A NUMBER
When I turned 40, I said, "It's just a number." I came out and won twice. I'm better equipped to win majors now than I used to be. There must be 20 golfers who have won majors in their 40s. The key is to keep yourself in decent shape, so you can turn your shoulders. I'm not gonna hit it like J.B. Holmes, but my length will be with me for a couple more years because I can still turn. I'm actually longer now than I was in my 20s.
STOP AND SMELL THE VICTORIES
If I could go back in time and talk to my 25-year-old self, I would say, "Slow down." I played a big schedule early in my career, traveling all over the world. If I could do it over, I'd settle down and play in one spot. Saying that, while I didn't win as many tournaments as I could have, I had a great time.
As you get older, you get more mentally tough. You get more patient. If I could play my younger self in match play, he'd have an edge; I made a lot of putts back then. My game was explosive -- a lot of eagles and birdies but a lot of double-bogeys, too. Now I'm more grounded. I say it comes down to the last hole, and the older guy just beats the younger guy, because I'm more patient and more mentally tough.
KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING
Change is good, but sometimes not changing is good. I have the same wife now as then -- Liezl and I have been together for 18 years. My private life has not changed at all. My family grounds me. We're home a lot. Kids became the priority, and home life is something we value. Our kids love to be home, rather than always going somewhere else.
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS
I've learned more from my kids than my kids have learned from metheir philosophy, the way they approach life, is quite interesting. My daughter Samantha does her homework, but she never panics. She's such an organized kid. She does it step by step, going through her books. No shortcuts. That's a great lesson. With Ben, there's not a bad day in his life. He was diagnosed with autism. He's had it pretty tough. He makes me smile and laugh, the way he loves watching movies, acting them out. He does a Shrek impression and does the donkey very well. He's quite a pistol. He's taught me to just get on with things. Don't complain. Live your life.
SPEAK FROM YOUR HEART
We spent my 40th birthday in the Bahamas. Samantha said some words about me. She spoke from her heart. She took me by surprise. We say we love each other a lot, but it's almost like she's not my daughter. It's like we're friends. Something very personal came out in her words, and I teared up. It's very personal. Basically, it was, "He's my dad -- and my only dad -- and I'll always love him."
GOLF IS LIKE LIFE
Guys like myself, Freddie, Phil, we've been around. It's interesting to see the youngsters. Some of them are very cocky. Then you get slapped a little bit, and that reveals a lot. It's interesting to watch it play out. My philosophy of golf and life is that you go through stages. You win a lot, and you want to win more. We're all happy when we win, but how do we handle things when we don't? You can't always win. You're gonna go through dry periods. That's when you're tested. That's when your character comes out -- how you lose, rather than how you win. How you pick yourself up off the floor. Because in this game, you pick yourself up off the floor a lot more than you stand next to the trophy.
FOLLOW YOUR PASSION
When we learned that our boy was affected by autism, we went to the Web. We saw how many families and kids are affected. Autism is right under the surface families are shy about it. Raising a kid who is different in this society is tough. People say, "What the hell's wrong with you?" Beneath the surface, millions of people are affected by autism. My wife and I felt we should raise our heads above the surface and speak. I'll be remembered for playing golf. But I also want to be remembered for letting families affected by autism know that life goes on.
"YOU'VE DONE THIS BEFORE"
My most nervous U.S. Open moment? In 1994 at Oakmont, on the 18th green, I had a little four-footer to get into the playoff with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts. I had the thing won, but I'd bogeyed 16 and was in the process of screwing up 18. But I made that fourfooter and won the playoff the next day. Who knows what would have happened in my career if I had missed that putt? That win put me on the map. When my nerves act up, I feel it in my stomach. My mind races. The pressure we face, I don't know how we get through it half the time. You just breathe, build yourself a little quietness for a second or two, and remind yourself, "Four-footer? You've done this before." That gets you through.
WHAT MONEY CAN'T BUY
Money makes things more comfortable, but what matters is family, friends, being your best. We never really struggled financially, but there was a time when Liezl and I had to save. It's nice to be comfortable, but I'm not silly. I don't buy new cars every month. I don't have dozens of houses. Well...okay, I have a new airplane, but these are things I need. I travel a lot. I play a lot of golf. [Laughs]
ON TIGER'S TROUBLES
When you're young, it's simple: Just the ball, the course, and you. As you get older, your mind gets more cluttered. Life gets complicated. You have to be able to live with yourself -- to be able to look in the mirror and like what you see. If you can do that, you're fine. If you don't like what you see, you've got work to do. In golf, off-course distractions matter. They get into your game. Don't get sidetracked, because it takes time to get back on track.
YOUR MIND MATTERS
This game is more mental than people think. You play good golf because you feel comfortable in your skin, and that spreads into your game. If you're uncomfortable in your mind, it shows on the course. Balance is important. Balance between body and mind.
FIND WHAT DRIVES YOU
I still love golf, all these years later. The U.S. Open is so special to me, but if I had to win one more major, I would go with either the Masters or the PGA. I've only won three majors. I want to win more. I'm chasing the career grand slam. That drives me.