Curtis Strange anointed Ernie Els the "next god" of golf. Gary Player compared Els's swing to Sam Snead's. Nick Price said the last boy wonder with this kind of talent was Seve Ballesteros. Arnold Palmer observed in Els many of the same "I'll show you" qualities that he once saw in himself. The consensus: This kid is something Els.
"Ernie is one of the brightest talents we have in world golf," said Bernhard Langer, a man not known to be overgenerous with his praise. "He has a great build, he hits the ball a tremendous distance, he has good rhythm and he does not get upset. Basically he has it all."
All those plaudits were heaped on the young South African's broad shoulders before he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in June.
Els is only the fifth player since World War II to win a major championship before turning 25. Ballesteros, who was 22 when he won the 1979 British Open, won four more majors before hitting the wall at age 32. Player was 23 when he won the '59 British, his first of nine majors. Jack Nicklaus won three of his 18 majors before he turned 25. In this pre-Els four-some, only Jerry Pate, who won the U.S. Open at 22, has not won another major.
Els, 24, appears to have all the physical and mental attributes needed to become golf's next dominant player. And he seems savvy enough to handle the acclaim and balance the demands. "He's got his head screwed on right," Price says. "He'll figure it out."
Els learned quickly after his grueling playoff victory over Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie that the price of being an Open champion is the loss of both innocence and privacy. He could no longer walk into a pub unnoticed or take his girlfriend, Leizl Wehmeyer, to a movie without being hounded for autographs.
"I'm grateful this has happened to me," says Els, "but after the U.S. Open, I got so many calls and requests that I had to take my phone off the hook." Now when Els goes to a tournament site, he carries an obligation to perform at a world-class level. Very few take that weight to the 1st tee in every event, but Els has joined Greg Norman, Price, Nick Faldo, Langer, Fred Couples and Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal as one of golf's leading men. He is ranked right behind them at No. 7 in the world.
After three rounds at the British, Els had recorded three 69s, giving him a record seven straight British Open rounds in the 60s, though he went on to finish only 24th. It was Els's ninth major, and in those nine he has five top-10 finishes as he heads into the PGA Championship next week at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. The PGA is the only major in which Els has not been a factor. He missed the cut in his two efforts, in 1992 and '93. Few noticed then. In Tulsa the world will be watching.
Success seemed almost inevitable from the start. Els, who grew up in Johannesburg, was 14 when he won the 13-14-year-old division of the Optimist Junior World championship in California, and 16 when he became the youngest player to win the South African Amateur. At 19 he won the South African tour school title.
Having accomplished all that, Els tried the Ben Hogan Tour, the PGA Tour's minor league, in 1991. In eight events he earned only $6,143 and grew terribly homesick. He returned home low on confidence. But that difficult period was part of Els's education. Missing cuts and staying at roadside motels gave him a sobering dose of reality. "Those guys are survivors out there," Els says. "They play for a living, and they kicked my butt."