MIAMI | No matter how the final round had turned out Sunday at the CA Championship at Doral, South African golf was going to be a huge winner in the $8.5 million World Golf Championships event. That immensely popular Ernie Els, a national hero, ultimately prevailed by four shots over peach-fuzz countryman Charl Schwartzel only made it that much sweeter to savor.
They went head-to-head all day in the final pairing, Els, a 40-year-old, three-time major champion who represents his country’s glorious recent past, and Schwartzel, a 25-year-old rising star who clearly has all the right stuff to extend South Africa’s proud golfing heritage deep into the 21st Century.
Schwartzel idolized Els as a youngster and watched his videos to perfect his own smooth swing. His father George once partnered with Els in an event back home 22 years ago, and young Charl was affiliated as a junior player with a South African development program funded by Els’s foundation.
The two playing partners also have become great friends.
“He almost feels like a little brother to me,” Els said earlier in the week, then admitted Sunday “it was surreal today, it just felt awkward … It just means so much. I didn’t think it was ever going to happen again.”
“All credit to Ernie today,” Schwartzel said. “He played flawless golf.”
After the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Els invited him to stay at his home in Jupiter, Fla. He was there for nine days, and they practiced together and played several rounds at nearby Seminole. Schwartzel was back at Els’ home again Sunday night after their duel at Doral, though Els had joked Saturday that depending on the final outcome, his house guest “might be sleeping in the garden.”
No worries now.
Schwartzel, a burgeoning presence on the European Tour, is largely unknown to American golf fans, though that surely changed dramatically Sunday. This season, he won the first two European Tour events, the Africa Open and the Joburg Open, both in South Africa. At Joburg, he was 23 under and won by six shots.
“I think it’s a wonderful, cool story,” Els said. “It’s great for South African golf, obviously. World golf, obviously, a new young star, a 25-year-old really making his mark this year. He’s won twice. He’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Even better news: Els, a huge fan favorite Sunday, is excited about playing again and has been working diligently to get back to once more being reckoned with as well. Going into Doral, he had only one victory – the 2008 Honda – in the U.S. since 2004, when he earned a career-high $5.7 million and won three times.
The next season, Els ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee when he was being pulled on an inner tube during a boating holiday, an injury that ended his 2005 season in July and clearly affected his game for several years. It was The Big Easy morphing into The Big Uneasy.
Els’ focus on golf also became less of a priority ever since he and his wife Liezl decided last year to disclose that their 8-year-old son Ben was autistic. They established the Els for Autism Foundation last spring and are out-front advocates to help find the cause and the cure.
“Should we keep it very private and deal with it, or as we’ve seen, there are so many families that are touched by it,” Els said. “And every time I speak to people, even at Ben’s school, you can see the pain and frustration. I thought if we came out, everybody thinks we do have great lives, but in a lot of ways, we are very similar to everybody out there.”
But not on a golf course, where Els has been superstar ever since he won his first U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994 at age 24 and prevailed again in 1997 at Congressional. This year, Els said he wanted to rededicate his efforts and try to get back into the major championship mix. Now, for the first time in a long while, his game is approaching that same lofty level, and his victory here surely will affirm all that hard work was clearly worth the effort.
“For some reason, I feel really good mentally, Els said. “I feel a little more fresh than I have been. I feel I’m up for it a little bit more this year … a bit more excited about my whole game. My putting is coming around, my short game is coming around, so I’ve got a lot more hope than I’ve had in the last couple of years.”
Els said a reduced travel schedule, particularly not playing early in the year in the Middle East, and spending more time at home may well be the reason for his newfound zest. He also is eagerly anticipating playing three of his favorite courses on the major championship schedule this year.
“I love them,” he said. “I’ve done well at Pebble, done well at St. Andrews and I did well at Whistling Straits. I feel if I have my game there, I could have a good chance. I think it’s a good opportunity for a lot of players to basically strike now … I also feel it’s been good for me to change my schedule up a little bit. I like my schedule this year. It’s a bit more what I want to do, not what everybody else wants me to do.”
Everybody mostly wanted Els, ranked No. 20 in the world at the start of the week, to climb back into the top 10 where he belongs. On Sunday, Els was thrilled to oblige. With the victory, he moved up to No. 8. Talk about a wonderful, cool story, and clearly to be continued.