Ernie Els was born 12 years after Bobby Locke won the last of his four British Opens and seven years after Gary Player won the first of his two PGA Championships, but the young golfer from South Africa is keenly aware of what they meant to golf in his country.
Locke, one of the great putters in history, and Player, one of only four golfers to win all four major tournaments, would have been proud of Els Friday when he eagled the first hole at Riviera and went on to shoot a six-under-par 65 and take a share of the halfway lead with Mark O’Meara in the 77th PGA Championship.
Els, ignoring the spike marks that caused some golfers to say Riviera’s greens were like mine fields, dropped an eight-foot putt for his eagle, then rolled home five birdie putts ranging from two to 25 feet.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Els has been following in the tradition of Locke and Player since he took up golf at 9. In 1992, when he was 22, he became the first since Player in 1979 to win the South Africa Open, PGA and Masters championships on the South African tour.
Els, now 25, met Locke only once, long after the be-knickered British Open champion had retired, but he said he knew all about his career.
“We never met on the golf course,” Els said after Friday’s round. “We met in a clothing store in Germiston, which is a suburb of Johannesburg. I think I was there to buy some shoes or something.
“I think I was only about 11 or 12 years old. My mother and I went into the store and [ran into] Mr. Locke there. I just said, ‘I’m a golfer.’ I was so in awe. I can’t remember what he said to me. I was just staring at the guy, and he was really a gentleman.”
Locke, who won the British Open in 1949, ’50, ’52 and ’57, played in several Los Angeles Opens during the 1950s. He played in only one PGA, losing in the first round of match play to Henry Ransom in 1947.
When Player completed his sweep of the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA, he joined Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus in that accomplishment.
“Gary Player was, I must say, an inspiration to every sportsman in South Africa,” Els said. “Being a little guy as he is, winning so many major championships was obviously a lot of hard work.
“He had to travel around a lot, especially in the days when South Africa was a little bit isolated from the rest of the world. And he won all those great championships and kept us on the map.”
Els knows what it takes to make round-trips to South Africa. After missing the cut as defending champion in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Els went home for a week’s vacation before beginning to tool up for the British Open and the PGA.
“I had a really great time, relaxing with my friends, watching rugby and learning to enjoy the game a little more,” he said. “I just tried too hard at the U.S. Open and you can’t do that.”
Another thing that is helping him at Riviera is his knowledge of how to hit from the dreaded kikuyu, a grass native to South Africa that covers Riviera’s fairways and rough. On several occasions Friday, Els was in the rough but managed to hit out and make par.
“This is exactly the same stuff I grew up in,” he said. “In South Africa, you know, where I lived in Johannesburg, this is the only kind of grass we have. Kikuyu is a tough grass, and lucky for me, I learned how to get out of the stuff.
“A lot of players in America don’t ever play on kikuyu except when they come to Riviera, maybe once a year. So maybe that’s a bonus for me.”
While neither Locke nor Player left South Africa except to play golf, Els is building a home in Orlando, Fla., where he expects to spend more time.
“I still want to play more internationally, like Gary Player,” he said. “I feel like I am an international player. I’ve always played around the world, in South Africa, Australia, Japan, Europe and in America. And I’d like to continue doing that.
“I don’t see any problem with me playing more than 15 tournaments in America. This is my first year on the American circuit. It’s been quite a learning experience for me, but I enjoy it. I’d also like to play a couple around the British Open, and maybe a couple in Japan, and I’ll be a happy man.”