Sam Snead, who graduated high school but not college, once wrote an excellent book called The Education of a Golfer. If you travel the country and the world playing golf, and you have Snead’s gift for observation, you’re going to learn some things that can’t be taught in a classroom. Sam Els could write a book called The Education of a Golfer’s Daughter.
Samantha Leigh Els is 18, strong and athletic, and she graduated from high school in June. She can talk to you about the meaning of her school’s Latin motto, Possunt Quia, Posse Videntur (“They can because they think they can”). But Sam Els is not a remarkable young woman because she went to a fine and expensive private day school. (The Pine School, in Hobe Sound, Fla.) She is a remarkable young woman because her parents are Ernie and Liezl, because her brother is Ben, because she has lived in South Africa and England and the United States, because she has followed her father on courses all over the world, in good times (contending) and bad (suffering from the yips). And because, like Snead before her, she is observant.
“Friends come to the house, and the ones that are not comfortable hanging with Ben, they don’t come back,” Sam told me in July. We were walking Royal Birkdale’s hills, talking between her father’s shots. Ben, 14, is autistic, and Sam has watched (and helped) as her parents started a school for young people with autism in South Florida, now attended by Ben and about 300 others. “We like to say that of the four of us in our family, Ben is the most normal. He’s my normal. I never had a sibling who wasn’t Ben.” But Sam is not sugarcoating anything. There’s a reason why Ben was not with his family at the Open. His unbridled exuberance can be a challenge to manage. “Someday, he’ll be my responsibility,” she said.
Sam’s mother grew up in South Africa and was “at university” until her brother’s death called her home. For years, if you followed Ernie on the course, you saw Liezl, carefully charting every shot her husband played. “If I ever got a B in anything,” Sam said, “my mother would kill me.” The message behind the message was simple: Do the work. But Liezl was not an all-work, no-play mom. The great indoor pastime of Sam’s childhood was elevator tag in various player hotels, Philippa Parnevik in tow, Liezl hanging with the other mothers.
Ernie turned pro at 19. His job, in the education of Samantha Els, was to get her to school on time, a task he relished. They would listen to Queen (“Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?”) in the car, and every morning he had the same curbside message for her: Be yourself. “It’s good advice, especially in the States,” Sam said. “People get in trouble by trying to act too hip or too cool.” Her father’s credo, Sam explained, has helped her to learn to think for herself. When Tiger had his fall from grace in 2009, some of the Tour kids were devastated, but Sam was not. “My parents would say, “What’s personal should stay personal.” Tiger was a great golfer and always nice to us. I babysat his kids a couple of times. But I never put him on a pedestal.” She sounded so grown-up.
Somewhere on the back nine, we stopped and bought strawberries off a camper parked in the rough. Ernie’s father, Neels, was doing the same, his cashmere sweater and logoed Tourwear doing nothing to soften his tough, wind-whipped Afrikaners face. Sam speaks fluent Afrikaans at home. Her accented English is precise and original. “South Africa is a country with a lot of cleavages,” she said with notable sadness. Those national divides make her only more committed to the country she considers home. She refers to her green South African passport as “the green mamba, the snake nobody wants.”
Her career ambitions are still embryonic: physiotherapist, international correspondent, maybe some job not yet invented. “I’d like to give a voice to the voiceless,” she said. She was thinking of her brother.
She wrote a college-application essay about the six-putt green her father endured on the first hole of the first round of last year’s Masters. Actually, it wasn’t about the five misses. It was about how he walked to the second tee, head high, carrying on. What a lesson for Sam, and for us all. She’s going to Stanford.
Her father approached the 18th green in the first-round of the 146th British Open. He’s won two of them. The crowd stood for the old champ, bathed now in warm applause on a cool afternoon. On the rope line, Sam leaned her forehead on her mother’s shoulder and said, “He’s still great.” The proud daughter.
The world, the big world that awaits Sam Els, was put on hold for part of a minute. Ernie waved his cap to the bundled spectators, knowing his wife was among them. His wife—and his little girl.