Childhood & Early Life
He was born on October 17, 1969, in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Hettie and Neels Els. He was raised in Lambton, Germiston.
As a child, he played tennis, cricket, and rugby and began playing golf at 8 years of age. His father, who worked at the ‘Germiston Golf Club’ as a trucking executive, was the first person to teach him golf. With time, he began to outperform his father and older brother, Dirk, in the game.
He started excelling in tennis too and won the ‘Eastern Transvaal Junior Championship’ at 13 years of age. However, after becoming a “scratch handicap” by the age of 14, he made up his mind to focus on golf. He participated in the Boys 13–14 category of the ‘IMG Academy Junior World Golf Championship’ in 1984 and won it.
Moving on, he won the ‘South African Amateur Championship’ shortly after turning 17 years old. With this, he surpassed the earlier record of Gary Player and became the youngest player ever to win the championship.
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He turned professional in 1989, after winning the ‘South African Amateur Stroke Play Championship’ that year.
He aced the ‘Sunshine Tour Order of Merit’ in the 1991–1992 season and again in the 1994–1995 season. Meanwhile, he earned his first tournament win outside his homeland in 1993 at the ‘Dunlop Phoenix Tournament,’ a yearly event on the ‘Japan Golf Tour.’
His first major championship title came in 1994, when he won the ‘United States Open Championship,’ also referred to as the ‘US Open,’ at the Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, with a score of 279 (–5), while Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie and American golfer Loren Roberts finished as runners-up.
His initial years saw him playing across the globe and winning the ‘Dubai Desert Classic’ on the ‘European Tour’ in 1994. He won the title in the years 2002 and 2005 too.
The year 1994 turned out to be extremely prolific for Els, as he won his first ‘World Match Play Championship’ title that year, defeating Scottish player Colin Montgomerie 4 & 2. He defended the title the following year, beating Australian golfer Steve Elkington 3 & 1. He also won the ‘GTE Byron Nelson Golf Classic’ tournament in 1995.
He won his third successive ‘World Match Play Championship’ in 1996, beating Vijay Singh of Fiji, with a 3 & 2 score, at Wentworth. With this feat, he became the first player in the history of the sport to have earned the title three times in a row. He wrapped up the year with a ‘South African Open’ win.
The 97th ‘US Open,’ held at the ‘Blue Course’ of the ‘Congressional Country Club’ in Bethesda, Maryland, in June 1997, saw him winning his second ‘US Open’ title with a score of 276 (–4) and a winning margin of 1 stroke, while Colin Montgomerie finished once again as runner-up. This feat led him to become the first foreign golfer since yesteryear Scottish–American golfer Alex Smith (1906, 1910) to win the championship twice. However, he lost the ‘World Match Play Championship’ title to Vijay Singh that year.
The Board of Directors of the primary golf tour in Europe, the ‘European Tour,’ conferred him with an honorary life membership of the ‘European Tour’ in 2000, for earning two ‘US Open’ titles and three ‘World Match Play Championship’ titles. That year, he finished as runner-up in three of the four ‘Major Championships,’ namely, the ‘US Open,’ ‘The Open Championship,’ and the ‘Masters Tournament.’
The most successful year of his career so far was probably 2002, in which he won the oldest of the four major championships in professional golf, ‘The Open Championship,’ at Muirfield, earning the famous ‘Claret Jug’ trophy for the first time, with Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington, and Thomas Levet finishing as runners-up. That year, he also won the ‘Genuity Championship’ title with world number one Tiger Woods finishing as runner-up. Ernie also won his fourth ‘World Match Play Championship’ title the same year.
His fifth, sixth, and seventh ‘World Match Play Championship’ titles came in 2003, 2004, and 2007, respectively. Meanwhile, 2004 marked the beginning of the "Big Five Era" when the sport was dominated by Els along with Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and Retief Goosen, who remained in the top five spots, switching positions in the ‘World Golf Ranking.’ Till the beginning of 2007, they mostly kept the top five spots occupied among themselves.
The 141st ‘Open Championship,’ held at the ‘Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club’ in Lytham St. Annes, Lancashire, England, in July 2012, saw Els winning his second ‘Claret Jug’ trophy, with a winning score of 273 (−7) and a winning margin of one stroke, while Adam Scott finished as runner-up.
A few other achievements of this ace golfer include becoming the ‘PGA Tour Rookie of the Year’ in 1994 and the ‘European Tour Player of the Year’ in 1994, 2002, 2003. He was also the winner of the ‘European Tour Order of Merit’ in 2003 and 2004. He was inducted into the ‘World Golf Hall of Fame’ in 2011and won the ‘Payne Stewart Award’ in 2015.
On December 31, 1998, he married Liezl Wehmeyer in Cape Town. They have two children, Samantha Leigh Els and Ben Neels Els.
The skilled golfer began to exhibit a logo of ‘Autism Speaks’ on his golf bag, in 2008. ‘Autism Speaks’ is an US organization that raises awareness about autism and sponsors research on the condition. Ernie later revealed that his 5-year-old son, Ben, has autism.
He and his wife remain involved in a lot of charitable activities related to autism. In 2009, he came up with the ‘Els for Autism Pro-Am,’ an annual charity golf event. The proceeds of its first event, amounting to US$ 725,000, were donated to ‘The Renaissance Learning Center’ that is devoted to autistic children. The couple also set up the ‘Els Center of Excellence’ and hopes to build a new campus for ‘The Renaissance Learning Center.’
Ernie’s primary residence is at the Wentworth Estate in the south of England. However, Els and his family often live in their home in Jupiter, Florida, US, apart from spending time in South Africa for Ben’s treatment.