Ernie Els on playing under pressure, raising an autistic child, Tiger and more

Ernie Els on playing under pressure, raising an autistic child, Tiger and more


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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]

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.

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.

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.