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My First Open

Ernie Els


Royal Troon 1989

Ernie Els was South Africa

He has twice been crowned Champion Golfer of the Year, but Ernie Els’ remarkable journey all began at Royal Troon in 1989.

The South African held the Claret Jug aloft at both Muirfield and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2002 and 2012, augmenting his number of major crowns to four after previous triumphs at the US Open in 1994 and 1997.

But it is The Open where his heart really lies, a Championship that laid the foundations for his considerable rise and longevity that still sees him go toe-to-toe with the world’s elite today.

Els has an insatiable appetite for the sport – and the Championship – that was ignited up in Scotland all those years ago.

He came into his inaugural Open with considerable confidence, being crowned South African Amateur Stroke Play champion earlier that year at the age of just 19.

He also set about turning professional in 1989, arriving in Troon with lofty ambitions and a fervent desire to make a name for himself in his maiden golfing major.

And despite his ever-growing reputation domestically as both a winner and a fun-loving, convivial character, his hunger to strive for improvement was never in doubt.

“My father told me way, way back, ‘you know, there’s a time and place for everything,’” Els said, reflecting on the origins of his golfing odyssey.

“You can’t just be all about work – there’s got to be a bit of play here and there.” Ernie Els

"You can’t just be all about work – there’s got to be a bit of play here and there, and if you keep that discipline you might be okay.

“Obviously when you hear the word partying you always look at a person in a different way, like he’s not working, he’s just partying, but that was never the case with me.

“In those days I was celebrating because I was winning a lot, but golf was always first.

“If I felt my game was a little off, you’re not going to find me in the bar or anything, I was going to be on the range, so there was a lot of work going on behind the scenes.”

But despite the diligent work Els was undertaking, it was not enough to make the cut at his first Championship, shooting first rounds of 72 and 76 to fall 13 shots behind runaway leader Wayne Grady.

Els failed to make the most of what were favourable scoring conditions on the first day, trailing leader initial Wayne Stephens – who waltzed to a two-shot lead with an imperious round of 66 – by six.

And he struggled on the second, bogeying several holes to drop to four over par and bring his Open bow to a regrettably premature ending before the weekend had begun.

But Els’ 1989 woes were not enough to diminish his significant aspirations at the Championship, as he renewed his pursuit of the Claret Jug – after not competing in the two previous competitions – at Muirfield in 1992.

The South African got off to a flying start, shooting majestic opening rounds of 66 and 69 to go seven under par and tying for fifth heading into Day 3.

Ernie Els cradles the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2002

But he fell away over the course of the weekend, going round in 70 and 74 on the final two days and watching Nick Faldo clinch a memorable one-shot win.

And despite his inability to keep up with the leaders, Els believes The 121st Open was fundamental in offering him a platform for his later successes both 10 and 20 years later.

“The 1992 Open was the opening of the door for me to where I am sitting today,” he added.

“There was a real burning ambition to do really well and get trophies and get started with my career as so to speak.

“Seeing how much that Claret Jug meant to Faldo, seeing the emotion was quite something to behold.

“If it wasn’t for that Championship, wasn’t for the fact that I finished fifth, which enabled me to get into the next US Open, which I won, which gave me a 10-year exemption, 1994 would never have happened.

“It was the start of many things to come.”

Things to come indeed: as has become well-documented, Els returned to Muirfield to clinch a memorable play-off victory over Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington in 2002, before going on to pip Australian Adam Scott to the Claret Jug by just one shot ten years later.

But for all his glory and admirable sense of longevity, Els knows his journey into the terrain of golfing greatness all began at one place – Royal Troon in 1989.