Profile: A name to rule the game: Ernie Els: Robert Green assesses the rare talent of a young golfer equipped to be a star turn at Turnberry

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The Independent Online
THREE Sundays ago, in an atmosphere of enervating heat and tension guaranteed to melt the iciest of nerves, Ernie Els stood over a four-foot putt for a bogey five on the final hole of regulation play in the US Open that would put him into a three-way play-off the following day. 'If you're going to lose it, don't lose it now,' muttered his manager, Sam Feldman. Els was thinking something simpler: 'Just don't miss it.' He didn't.

By the second play-off hole the next day, where he followed an opening bogey five with a triple-bogey seven, Els said to his caddie: 'Why the hell did I make that putt to get into this thing?'

You could call the 24-year-old South African the survivor as much as the winner of the 1994 US Open, but you have to acknowledge that after that hideous start in the play-off he demonstrated the determination of a champion, playing the next 18 holes in one under par. He may have spent so much time in Oakmont's rough that, to quote the American writer Dan Jenkins, 'you'd have sworn he was looking for the missing letters in his name', but he used his putter about as sparingly as he did the fairways.

'I was fortunate to win given the way I hit it the last two days,' he said. 'But every putt I had to make, I made.' He even made an identical putt on the 18th on the Monday, this time for par, to take Loren Roberts into added overtime, there to finish him off at the second extra hole.

Roberts led the tributes to Els. 'He has the length, he hits the ball high and he's a good putter,' he said. 'He's got a lot of game and he's only 24, I'm 38 (now 39). I wish I'd had that kind of game when I was 24.' After playing with Els on the Saturday of the US Open, Curtis Strange said: 'I think I just played with the next God. He has a lot of strength, easy strength. He's smooth and has a fantastic putting touch. He seems to have it upstairs, between the ears.'

Tom Watson added: 'He has what it takes to be a world-beater. His rhythm is beautiful. People have said there is never going to be somebody who dominates the game again, but I disagree. Maybe it will be Ernie.'

Maybe he will dominate the Open Championship which begins at Turnberry this Thursday; he is rightly one of the favourites. Born and raised in Johannesburg, Els is the son of a successful businessman. Even as a 14-year-old, he was recognised as a rare talent. 'At the junior world tournament, you always wanted to know if Els was going to be there,' said Phil Mickelson, his fellow prodigy.

Els, of course, must learn to bear the burden that has encumbered a legion of fine golfers before him - the label of being hailed as the next Jack Nicklaus. Even though the real Nicklaus no longer plays like the original, his assessment of any putative successors is eagerly sought, and he shares Watson's opinion. 'I have said for a long time that some guy is going to come along who is big, strong and has touch,' said Nicklaus. 'We may have one in Els. He's already a very good player but he's so darn young that he has a great opportunity. I think that potentially he's your golfer of the future. He and Mickelson.'

The first time the South African spoke to Nicklaus was at the 1989 Open at Royal Troon, where Els was a pre-qualifier. The only vacant space on the range was next to the great man. 'He winked at me and said 'Have a good week',' Els recalled. 'I couldn't get over it. I thought he was bigger.' (Els is 6ft 3in to Jack's 5ft 11in.)

Els's reputation was already substantial before Oakmont. He won the South African Open, Masters and PGA titles in the same season - 1992 - thereby emulating an achievement of his most distinguished golfing compatriot, Gary Player. Last January, he shot a 61 en route to winning his first European Tour event, in Dubai, where he left Greg Norman floundering six shots in his wake.

Even before his hard-fought victory at Oakmont, Els had already signalled serious intentions towards the major championships. He had recorded four top-10 finishes in six majors as a professional, and at Royal St George's last July he became the first man to break 70 in all four rounds of the Open. That feat was overshadowed when Norman became the second man to do so in the course of his memorable triumph there.

Asked on the Saturday evening at Oakmont what it would mean to win the US Open, Els replied: 'Everything. It's a major championship.' When he completed the job, he became only the fourth foreign winner of the title since the Second World War and only the fifth golfer under 25 to win any major since 1945. 'I have always wanted to play particularly well in the majors,' Els said. 'And when I play well, I want to win.'

During the Open at Muirfield two years ago, Els played in the penultimate match on the Sunday with the eventual runner-up, John Cook. Cook missed a two-foot birdie putt on the 17th and bogeyed the last after sending his second shot into the spectators on the right. He lost by a stroke to Nick Faldo. Els didn't just watch Cook's calamities. He analysed them. 'I think John might have been a little quick on that putt on 17, and on 18 I think he just lost his concentration. But it just shows how fast things can happen.' He learnt something specific from that errant approach shot of Cook's. 'He went with a two-iron. I went with a four. I made a memory for myself. In that circumstance, you don't want to hit anything soft.'

Despite the silky putting stroke that withstood the severe test of temperament and touch posed by the slick slopes of Oakmont's greens, Els's game is not chiefly renowned for its softness. Its notoriety rests on its length. As Nick Price said: 'The last thing Ernie needs is an extra few yards. I would say 300 is plenty for anyone.'

Price has been mildly critical of Els's technique, while overall feeling that 'he has all the ingredients to become an absolute superstar'. Price considers that Els breaks his wrists a little earlier than he would like to see on the takeaway, turns his hips a little too quickly coming into the ball, and can have a tendency to overswing, taking the club past parallel at the top of the backswing. The fact that he hit only six fairways in the play-off at Oakmont was perhaps indicative of what can go wrong under pressure. On the credit side, Els's action enables him to generate prodigious length, and his wonderfully free-flowing, powerful swing finishes with a preposterously long and languid follow-through ending with a slight swish of the wrists as a cow might flick its tail.

But Els has assimilated one of the changes Price advocated into his action. 'I have made my backswing a little shorter,' he said. 'Other than that my swing is as it was.'

Els's US Open win was guaranteed to enhance his appeal to tournament promoters and equipment manufacturers. 'A great many tournaments have made approaches to us in the last couple of weeks,' Feldman said. Els hits Lynx clubs, Titleist balls and wears Ashworth clothing. 'All these companies have asked about extending Ernie's existing contracts,' he added. 'The major thing I have noticed is that more people want to talk to me,' Els said.

The golfer has indicated he might make a greater commitment to the US Tour from next season, although that is not certain. 'Ernie likes it in Europe and has rented a flat in London,' Feldman said. 'But more opportunities could open up if he played more regularly in the States. It would help if he didn't have to commit himself to playing as many as 15 tournaments to be a member of their tour.'

Els's development and maturity as a golfer have not been noticeably impeded by concentrating his schedule in Europe. He at present occupies seventh position on the Sony Rankings, having started the season in 20th place.

Els has, inevitably, attracted the attention of Mark McCormack's International Management Group (IMG), which could do with a fresh-faced client now that Norman and Price have fled the fold over the last few months. Els has denied he might be lured into being a replacement.

'I have been with Sam from the beginning and I am very happy to keep things that way,' he said. Instead, he intends to reinforce the increasingly popular trend for big-name golfers to employ a personal manager who has no other responsibilities or clients with whom there might be a conflict of interests. It is a path pursued not only by Norman and Price but also by Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. Els shares Olazabal's philosophy about the financial rewards to be accumulated from the game. 'I just concentrate on playing golf. The money then takes care of itself.'

So while some may cavil that Els is a few letters short of a full moniker, there is no doubt that he has a full life. And no one can deny that the family dog's name is perfect: Hogan.

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