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Ernie Els excited to be a rookie again in Hoag Classic debut

Professional golfer Ernie Els speaks as the guest of honor during the Hoag Classic's Breakfast with a Champion at Newport Beach Country Club on Tuesday. Els, a four-time major winner and recent Presidents Cup International team captain, will compete in the Hoag Classic golf tournament, Orange County's PGA Tour Champions event.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

There was not an empty seat at the Newport Beach Country Club on Tuesday morning, as members sat at rapt attention in their chance to get to know the newest star attraction of the PGA Tour Champions.

Ernie Els, who turned 50 in October, will be playing in the Hoag Classic from Friday to Sunday at the local club. It will be just the third event that Els has played on the circuit.

A four-time major champion on the PGA Tour, Els is excited to have joined the senior tour, reuniting with many of the players that he grew up watching.

“I’m a rookie again, so I’ve got some energy, so I want to play against these guys,” Els said in a sit-down interview with Hank Adler, the Chairman Emeritus of the Hoag Classic. “Saying that, we got a [62]-year-old [Bernhard Langer] that is winning every second week, so we’ve got our work cut out, but I’m looking forward to my next career.”

Those in attendance at the Hoag Classic’s Breakfast with a Champion event roared with laughter as Els made a number of age-related jokes. Known by many in the golf world as, “The Big Easy,” Els did not find it quite so easy to run away from the field his first couple of PGA Tour Champions events.

“They might not walk very easily, but they can score,” Els quipped, citing a round in which he came into the clubhouse behind both Hale Irwin, 74, and Tom Watson, 70.

A two-time winner of both the U.S. Open (1994 at Oakmont Country Club; 1997 at Congressional Country Club) and the British Open (2002 at Muirfield Golf Links; 2012 at Royal Lytham), Els said the last one was the one that meant the most to him.

On that occasion, Els, who was 42 at the time, came from six strokes behind on the back nine to beat Adam Scott.

Els admitted that in life, it does not hurt to catch a few breaks. He pointed to one in particular that got his professional golf career going on the PGA Tour.

Lee Janzen won the U.S. Open in 1993 at Baltusrol Golf Club, but a rare miss for him in that tournament kept Els alive for the weekend.

“He missed a putt, about a six-foot putt on the 18th hole on a Friday,” Els said. “If he makes that putt, I miss the cut, and you probably won’t hear from me.

“He missed that putt. I made the cut, and I remember playing the third round with Hale Irwin. I shot 66 that morning, and I shot 67 on the final day. I got all the way from the cut line to seventh place.

“I qualified for the 1994 U.S. Open. I got into the Masters of 1994, through the top 10 at the U.S. Open. You talk about breaks. I should thank Lee Janzen.”

Els marveled at those who have strung together double-digit totals in major tournaments, overlapping into tennis, another sport that he played growing up. He made reference to the names and major championships won by golf greats Jack Nicklaus (18) and Tiger Woods (15), as well as tennis stars Roger Federer (20), Rafael Nadal (19) and Novak Djokovic (17).

The target that Els set in terms of major championship victories was nine, which was the number won by Gary Player, a fellow South African.

“That was my aim,” Els said. “I was on my way until a guy called Tiger came about. At least I won a couple because this guy was so unbelievable. He’s still unbelievable, but he was such an unbelievable player.”

Els is also known for his philanthropic efforts. Founded in 1999, the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation provides South African youth with playing opportunities in golf and educational assistance.

Autism is another cause close to the heart of Els and his wife, Liezl, as their son Ben, 17, has been impacted by the condition.

The Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter (Fla.) opened its doors in 2015, providing on-site education for 300 students ages 3-21.

The Els for Autism organization also works to facilitate best practices in education and therapy to the international autism community.

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