The Big Easy

With a focus on helping find a cure for autism, Ernie Els balances family, golf and a wine business

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“I went to the belly, thought that was my way out of it,” says Els. “Then I found  going to the belly—all the guys think its easier because  it’s attached and you can make a better stroke with it—but you have to get used to it, and that took me over a year. I’m not totally for it, and while it is there and other guys are using it, if this is going to be my way out, let me give it a go.”
It wasn’t the solution. The solution was Dr. Sherylle Calder. Calder is a visualization coach at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa who has worked with many of the country’s star athletes, among them two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen. Johann Rupert introduced Els to Calder at a tournament in South Africa. Calder conducts a program she calls Eye Gym and believes that the problems many athletes encounter are rooted in their eye skills. Els had known about Calder before, but since his putting had been a great strength, he felt no need to use her services. Seven months after meeting her in January, he was thanking her at the Open victory ceremony.
“She showed so much confidence in me. Teachers and these guys always want to analyze you, analyze your stroke and your posture, da-da-da, looking at that as the answer when that’s not the answer,” says Els, his voice rising. “The answer was between the damn ears.” Els claps the side of his head with his substantial hands, embracing the thought that it was his brain and not his stroke that was the culprit.
“She told me you have too much talent, we’ll get you out of this, you’ll get confidence and you’ll win a major when no other person in two years would have gone as far as saying that,” says Els. “She had the nuts to say it.”
And this is where his son Ben’s daily routine, of waking at 10 minutes of six, of coming into his parents room and waking them, of going to the movie room downstairs where he has his “foodies” of fruit and yogurt, of then getting his eggs and bacon, of putting on his school uniform and leaving for school at 7:30, comes into play. “He is so into a routine. His life is so simple, and so functional, it’s scary,” says Els.
When Calder told him he needed a putting routine, it was then that his son’s life routine came into play. He knew he needed one.
“She said you have to get into your routine, you have to believe in your routine,” says Els. “When we started working the first week, she asked me to do what you normally do. I said I don’t usually have a routine. She was very surprised. She started giving me a routine, that’s how screwed up I was. I didn’t have a routine of looking at a hole once or twice, or looking at a spot. So we started basically from scratch. We got into some kind of routine with my left eye. I’m a left-eye dominant person, my left eye has to be on or behind the ball. Getting my eyes quiet, not so full of bloody nerves. Really just getting things quiet and then finding a routine for myself.”
Like Tom Watson’s late-career putting woes, Els had been getting advice from hither and yon. “I had guys in South Africa, farmers, building me putters,” he says. “I’ve got putters in my garage back home in Florida. I have all kinds of stuff, letters, lessons, putt with your eyes closed. Even people in the galleries [saying things].”
It was Calder’s therapy that worked, that got into his head, that gave him belief. He hopes that belief carries him to more major championships into his late 40s. But his career could wind down or even end by the time he is eligible for the Champions Tour. It’s then, Els thinks, that his other interests are likely to take over. He has a particular affection for his wine business and the winery.
“It’s something I feel I’m really going to spend more time on after my playing days,” he says. “When I’m 50, things might change. I don’t think I will play a full schedule in the U.S. We’ve been going hard at this playing golf. I still feel I can win big ones [his voice pinches for emphasis]. What I’m trying to say is that’s why I’m going so hard at golf because I think when I’m done playing I’m going to be quite done and spend much more time with the wine business. That will be a time when Samantha will be starting college. Who knows, she might love Stellenbosch University, a great university. She might just want to go to South Africa and I’ll move down to South Africa.
“I don’t get there enough. I’ve got a great winemaker [Louis Strydom], thank god. He’s been with me every year since our first vintage, which was in ‘99. We have [178 acres]. From the high end, the Ernie Els Signature, down to the Big Easy wines, the whites also now. It’s a well-diversified wine portfolio. It is successful. We turn a profit. I speak to the guys on almost a daily basis. There is talk of going the Greg Norman way, of getting really big distribution.”
And there is more, much more, to his life and he continues talking in a stream on enthusiastic consciousness.
“We’ve got design. Asia is very exciting for us. We are doing a lot of stuff in Malaysia. We’re doing these Els Clubs, a concept that has kicked off nicely for us. We are doing one in Dubai, we have done one in South Africa, we are probably doing another one in South Africa. The Malaysia project is also an Els Club. We’ve done these Big Easy restaurants, South Africa, Dubai. We are looking at putting them into some hotels. A steakhouse, wine experience, fun places, the way we like to enjoy life.”
And what a life it has been.
“Ernie’s been a global player more than anyone of his generation,” says Price. “If Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus hadn’t played around the world, not just as competitors but as ambassadors of the game, as inspiration to young people, golf wouldn’t be where it is today. Ernie is very much in that mold, and he’s very popular around the world.”
Back home in South Africa, Johann Rupert has followed Els’ career closely. Rupert, owner of the Swiss-based luxury goods company Richemont among other enterprises, has a deep baritone that enhances his sincere feelings for Els.
“For more than 20 years my friendship with Ernie grew and grew,” Rupert says. “I prize honesty in a person and I prize loyalty. Ernie is both of those. He’s an extremely loyal person through good times and not so good times. I’m sure after his Open victory he rediscovered a lot of friends he didn’t remember he had. Ernie is a friend throughout. He is always there to lend moral support to me, my family and anyone else who is a true friend. He is always the same to his friends.
“Obviously it was a big blow to Ernie and Liezl when they found out that Ben had autism. It took a little time for them to come to grips that they would have to support Ben for the rest of their lives. But when they did, there was absolute commitment.”
Commitment, the willingness to step up, be it on the golf course or off of it, has marked Els career from the beginning. He’s found a way to help his son, he’s found a way to resuscitate his game. It’s not always easy for the Big Easy, but he’ll take life as it comes and make the best of it. No matter what, he’ll always be in the winners’ circle.
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.
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