The news from Johannesburg on Monday was that Ernie Els didn't win. South Africa's national hero had won his country's Open title the previous week, then tracked Zimbabwe's Tony Johnstone for three days at the Dunhill South Africa PGA before catching him with two holes to play. Ernie's fade to second place—he bogeyed 18 to finish two shots behind Johnstone—didn't dim the Els-mad crowd's ardor. For Theodore Ernest Els, once described as "so laid-back he's virtually horizontal," can do no wrong in his homeland. When 28-year-old lager lover Els, a.k.a. the Big Easy, did some pub crawling after the '92 South African Open, he left his $25,000 winner's check in a bar. Next day, retracing his steps, he found the check where he'd left it.
A 6'3" 210-pounder, the two-time U.S. Open champ has rock-star charisma his boyhood hero Gary Player couldn't match. Unlike Player the grim whippet, Easy Ernie inspires groupies as well as golf fans. Call them Els's Belles—they're the swooning girls who chase Els everywhere, much to the dismay of his longtime girlfriend, Liesl Wehmeyer. Friends say wedding bells may be next for Ernie and Liesl; fans say he's sure to win another major soon, maybe the Masters. If both predictions come true this spring, the South African beer industry may never recover.