Free weights. Stationary bikes. A tennis court visible through the window. The gym at Ernie Els’s Jupiter, Fla., mansion resembles a fitness center at the world’s nicest Courtyard by Marriott—with one outlier.
“I got this at an auction,” Els says of the Jake LaMotta photograph on the wall.
Els works with a personal trainer four days a week “to hammer this 48-year-old into shape,” he says. (Actually, he’s 47 until October.) “I’m a boxing fan. He was quite a guy, the Raging Bull.” Els puts up his dukes. “Gotta keep your elbows in.”
Els sees the 2017 Tour season as a title fight—and he’s taken some jabs to the jaw. He missed the cut in eight of his first 10 events and barely made the weekend at the Masters. “I’m putting great, but my long game needs work,” he says.
The clock is ticking—and not just on his body or the quality of his game. The five-year majors exemption Els earned for winning the 2012 British Open expired after he played this year’s championship at Royal Birkdale. Thanks to a special invitation, he’ll compete in his 100th major—August’s PGA Championship. But since last lifting the Claret Jug, Els has been stalled at four majors and 19 Tour wins. He badly wants No. 20, and if it comes at the PGA, all the better.
“I’ve had slumps before, and I can get hot,” says the World Golf Hall of Famer.
The challenge? Finding time to work on his game. In addition to a packed Tour schedule, Els has many business interests: course design, wine-making, a stake in a boozy coffee drink. He’s deeply involved in the Els Center for Excellence, an educational facility in Jupiter for kids on the autism spectrum. (Els’s son, Ben, 14, is autistic.) And his daughter, Samantha, 18, is headed to Stanford this fall, a passage that Dad won’t miss.
There’s a lot pressing in on him, but Els is a fine counterpuncher. Last year, when he six-putted from three feet at Augusta, he laughed it off, went to the practice green—and finished first in putting at the next Tour stop. From whipping the yips to finding fresh ways to motivate himself, here are some hard-won life lessons from the Big Easy.
Seize The Moment
I’ll be 48 in October, and 50 is around the corner. I still have majors to play. There’s time, and so much to play for. This year is huge. Being this age motivates me, scares me and excites me. I’m looking for a hot streak of good golf. I’ll never dominate the game again, but if I catch a streak, I know how to close out a tournament.
Age Is Just A Number
I’m in the fourth quarter. But age is just a freakin’ number. And 50 is the new 40. Phil is 47 and playing great. Freddie is competitive at the Masters. I can still win. I’ve been lucky in terms of health, injuries. To compete at 47, 48, while being in the Hall of Fame, you gotta be lucky.
Okay, Age Is Also An Aching Back
I feel the years sometimes. I can’t hit it 310 anymore. I’ve lost a little power. That’s why I work out four days a week. Last year, I averaged 293 off the tee. Not bad for a guy heading to 50. You have to keep pressure off your lower back. Tiger was right: Activate your glutes. [Laughs] You have to stretch your lower back and stay as loose as you can, because you can’t hit it far with a stiff back.
I’m Not Done Counting Majors
Mental focus is so important, even when you’re off the course. I recently said to someone, “In the end, I only ended up winning four majors.” I had to stop and say, “No! It’s four majors and counting.” You have to think that way.
Arnie Was A Rock Star
Arnold Palmer and I had a connection. We played together in the first two rounds of the “92 PGA Championship at Bellerive [near St. Louis.] He was 62, and I was 22. I was in awe. He was such a man’s man. I felt like I’d known him for years. I’m quite shy, but I didn’t have a problem talking with him. There was so much love from the people. They’d high-five him all day long, and he high-fived them right back. He was like a rock star. Women threw their numbers at him. On one tee, he says to me, “Wow, she was cute. Want this?” And he gives me the woman’s number. What a guy. [Laughs]
You Need A Good Team
If you want to do big things—in business, life, golf—it takes the right team. I have a lot going on: Samantha’s going to Stanford, Ernie Els Wines in South Africa, the [course] design business. And there’s the Els Center for Excellence. It all needs attention. You need a great, committed team, and I’ve got the very best.
Getting Older Means Working Harder
Golf came easier in my 20s than it has in my 40s. I have to work harder now. My wife Liesl and I had our first child late, so I had my 20s to focus on playing, to make some noise, to win. It’s harder, more challenging after 40.
Anger Can Kick-Start Your Round
On Sunday at the 2012 Open Championship [at Royal Lytham & St. Annes], I was angry when I reached the 10th hole. I had just made a bogey. Seve had won there in 1988, and he had just passed away [in 2011]. I said to my caddie, “We’re gonna be aggressive and make birdies. Let’s play the way Seve would.” I hit a perfect drive, pitched it to 10 feet and made the putt. That turning point helped me win my fourth major. You can propel yourself.
When You Win, Remember Who Lost
I couldn’t really celebrate at Lytham because Adam Scott is my mate. Hell, he’s like my little brother. He was leading but finished with four straight bogeys. When I won, I didn’t jump for joy, because I was in his position 70 times. When you should win a major and you don’t, it’s the worst feeling. I felt for him. In the scoring tent I told him, “Don’t get down on yourself. Your time will come.” I would text him now and then to keep him motivated. Sure enough, his time came, at the Masters [in 2013]. When he made that putt in the playoff to win, I was as excited as he was.
No One Was Like Seve
Seve Ballesteros had a poise, a stature. When he stood on the tee, there was something bigger there. You could feel it. When we played together, he elevated my concentration. We dueled in the semifinals at the 1994 World Match Play. We both played great and made a lot of birdies, but I beat him, 2 and 1. After our match, Seve went to my father and said, “Your son is very special. I play as good as I could. He beat me.” My dad’s not emotional, but his face was all tears.
Want It—But Not Too Much
You have to lose majors to win majors. But the ones you lose, it hurts. At the “95 PGA at Riviera, I had a three-shot lead entering the final round and lost. I had close calls in “96 at the U.S. Open and Open Championship. Looking back, I wanted it too much. I put too much pressure on myself. It made me tense, and that’s not how you play good golf. Sure, I’ve won four majors, but it could have been six, seven, eight.
Learn From the Greats
I love tennis. I was always a Bjorn Borg guy. I had a couple glasses of wine with him at our winery and asked him how he stayed so calm on big points. He said, “I played every point the same. Whether it was the first round of the Monte Carlo Open or the Wimbledon final, every point—my intensity, my concentration—was the same. Every point was the most important point ever.”
Tiger Got To Me
I won my first major in “94 and another in “97. So it was tough when Tiger came on the scene. I was the hot player, and here comes this phenom. The focus shifted to Tiger. The Tiger Effect had an effect on me. Even when I played well, the focus stayed on Tiger. That got to me. I led the 2000 Open Championship after the first round, and all the questions were about Tiger. I was like, “Are we talking about my round or about Tiger?” I was always answering questions about Tiger. I acted out and got in the face of some journalists. I felt like, “How much more could I answer?”
Let Your Cause Find You
When we learned that our son Ben was autistic, we kept it private for a while. But Ben got to an age where people would say, “What’s wrong with Ernie’s son?” We decided to tell the world that we’ve got a child with autism. We said, “He’s a little different, we’re dealing with it, and we’re not ashamed.” I got into research and science and what causes autism. We don’t want to preach, to shove this down anyone’s throat. But we like to educate people who are interested, to let them know that one out of every 68 children born in the USA will have autism. If my notoriety gives more focus to the cause, so be it.
Learn From Your Kids
I love bonding with Ben. I love the way he’s just himself. He’s pure, authentic. It’s hard for a lot of people to be themselves, but autistic kids are straightforward, honest. There’s no filter. I might be on my phone, distracting him, and he’ll say, “I want you to leave. Go watch TV.” [Laughs] So I leave. He says what he feels. If only we could all be more like that.
I Am Not Gary Player
Gary Player is my countryman and one of the greatest golfers of all time. But we’re different people. I’ve always had drive, but I’ve never wanted to talk much about it. I know how driven I am. Gary is different. He talks about sleeping in bunkers at St. Andrews. That’s not my style. I’m not gonna talk about sleeping in a bunker, even if I did. Gary and I will never see the world the same way.
Combine Your Work And Your Passions
Course design was a natural for me. I wanted to put my ideas out there. It’s wonderful taking a rough piece of land and turning it into a course. I’ve done 15 courses, all around the world—in Dubai, Hawaii, the Bahamas. I like wine, so I got into that. My business interests reflect what I like. My Ernie Els Iced Coffee is so good, and it’s got alcohol, but you can’t really taste the alcohol—which is good and bad, I guess. [Laughs]
Seek Out Peak Experiences
What were you put here to do? I was put on the planet to play golf. I love being out there, feeling the course, the tournament, the moment, competing in a big environment. It feels great. I felt it at the 2003 Presidents Cup in South Africa, when Tiger and I played to a draw with the matches on the line. It’s special when your team, your country, says, “Take the ball.” That moment was enormous. I know we halved, but we didn’t lose. The International team had lost enough. My mindset against Tiger? “Don’t screw up.” [Laughs] Not ideal, but I’m human.
Golf Can Seem Simple…
My best round ever was in 2004. I shot a 60 at Royal Melbourne. I was 12-under through 14. It was windy, with firm, fast greens. My game felt automatic. I could see the shot, then hit exactly what I saw in my head. Bang, bang, bang. No technical thoughts, no nothing. Magical. Simple. Automatic.
…Until You Get The Yips
At the Masters last year, I six-putted from three feet. I went viral! I called it the heebie-jeebies. There were snakes in my head. It was an out-of-body experience, like it wasn’t me. It brought me down to earth. But I was No. 1 in putting the next week [at Hilton Head]. A lot of fans said, “Now you know how I feel.” That didn’t help.
Meet Your Heroes
I met Nelson Mandela several times. He was the leader of South Africa after apartheid. He loved kids. On a plane, he sat my six-year-old daughter on his lap and spoke with her for an hour. When I’d win, he’d call to say, “The country’s so proud of you.” He made my wins a victory for our nation. He was nation-building. In the U.S., there’s a split over Trump. We had a bigger split in South Africa. We got through it. Mandela brought us together, and he used sport to help do it.
TIPS FROM THE BIG EASY:
ERNIE’S SECRET TO TEMPO
Swing rhythm starts with your hands. The softer you hold the club— I grip it at “3” on a 1-to-10 scale—the more you’ll feel the weight of the club. You have to feel the weight to swing smoothly. And your swing rhythm starts from the foundation of soft hands.
ERNIE’S LIFELONG SWING THOUGHT
My whole career I’ve said, “Finish your backswing.” Your left shoulder should be under your chin at the top of your backswing. And pause at the top for a half-second. That pause creates a smooth transition. Rush the transition and everything is out of sync. Get your left shoulder under your chin and pause before starting down and you’ll be almost as smooth as me!
Putting is about rhythm and making a strike that’s solid but also smooth. When you practice, feel like the ball is “stuck” on the putterface. Don’t think strike, think “gentle push.” You’re collecting the ball, not hitting it. The ball stays on the face longer, which increases your control.