The shooting star of Jupiter Island

Tim Glover on the young South African who has a talent that could eclip se the great Gary Player
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The Independent Online
Ernie Els cannot claim anonymity, like some major winners, but he handles the twin imposters of triumph and semi-triumph remarkably well."I've won a couple of bucks this year and that's great but we play to win tournaments and that's the bottom li ne," Els said after his victory in the Johnnie Walker World Championship at the Tryall club in Montego Bay.

A couple of bucks? Els has won a couple of million after enjoying a phenomenal season in the sun. A large percentage of that sum has come from visits to Johannesburg (his home city), San Francisco, Atlanta, Hawaii, Sun City and Jamaica and that whistle-stop tour takes in just the months of October, November and December in his cramped diary.

Greg Norman wants to start a "world tour" but if you look at, for example, the schedule of Els there are not many parts of the world that he has not played in this year. At 25 he is a lot younger than the players ahead of him in the Sony world rankings and he has won so much so soon it is possible to think that his future is behind him.

"Next year is going to be tough for me," Els said. "People are going to expect me to be in contention all the time. I think I can reach a higher level but I am a long way from being No1 in the world."

Nick Price heads the rankings and Els, by his victory on Sunday, has gone from seven to six."Watching Price play this year, I think I'm a long way behind him," Els said. "His swing is sound and he's a good thinker on the course. If he had been closer to me here it might have been a different story."

Els was being too modest. After opening with two rounds of 64 he did not allow anybody to get close to him. If he improves his game, as he says he can, then the thirtysomethings, like Price, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo will need to have more than David Leadbetter in their corner to withstand his challenge."My driving, iron play and short game, everything can improve," Els said.

Considering that he began the season with a round of 61 to win in Dubai in January by a canter and finished it with a six-stroke victory in Montego Bay to win another $550,000 (£360,000) , the question is how good can he become.

As good, perhaps, as Gary Player? The comparison is always made becasue they share nationality. After that it's chalk and cheese. If Player is a fitness fanatic, a clean liver with the cleanest of livers, Els revels in a night on the sauce. When he was approached at the Caddy Inn, a bar near Muirfield Village, Jack Nicklaus's course in Columbus, Ohio, Els played possum. "Ernie doesn't drink," he said to a bemused reporter."Theo drinks but not Ernie." Theodore Ernest Els was enjoying a joke.

He is a natural and what is more he has what one American player described as"intestinal fortitude". Els could have been a good tennis player or a cricketer or a back row forward for which he has the perfect build. Then one day he caddied for his father,who owns a truck company in Johannesburg, at a course called Kempton Park and golf became his bag.

Where it is valid to mention Player and Els in the same breath is in wondering whether the tall one can win as many major championships. "In a way the comparison is nice but I don't want to hear it," Els said. "Like Gary says, can we compare wallets. We're totally different people with totally different attitudes.

"Gary always had to work his way around and fight it out. I try to enjoy the game at least. When I was young I always watched the Masters on television but I've never followed a specific player. I've always wanted to win all four of the majors at least once and I feel I can achieve that goal."

While Player was up against Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Els's closest rival, in terms of ability and age, is Jose-Maria Olazabal. They both won their first major championship this season, Olazabal the Masters at Augusta, Els the US Open at Oakmont in Pittsburgh. In the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth the Spaniard, with a brilliant closing round, overtook the South African. Later Els took his revenge on the same course en route to winning the World Match Play Championship.

The timing of Els's appearance into professional golf is as sweet as his swing."I've been lucky," he said."I think our generation is going to be okay. It was difficult for the olders guys when a lot of European countries had sanctions against us. They missed out on a lot of golf, a lot of money. All the doors are open now."

His precocious talent first caught the eye when he won the World Junior Championship at the age of 14; in 1992 he became the first man since Player to achieve a clean sweep of South Africa's main tournaments. In between was an abortive trip to the US Tour school.

"That brought him down to earth," Sam Feldman, his manager, said. "He realised that you've got to get out there and work because there are thousands of guys who can play the game. He spent months in God forsaken little towns in the middle of nowhere and that was his golfing education."

Els's success in South Africa opened the door to the European Tour and his six-shot victory in Dubai may never be surpassed, at least not in terms of scoring for he seemed to hole every putt he faced. "Ernie has a very good build for a golfer and great rhythm," Bernhard Langer said. "He has a good head on his shoulders and he doesn't get upset like some of the other youngsters. He's got it all. A long hitter, a great putter."

Langer, one of the toughest competitors in the game, made that comment before Els won the US Open in Oakmont's blast furnace heat in June. It was only his second attempt and he proved it was no fluke after finishing seventh on his debut in a championshipthat has eluded Price, Faldo, Norman and Ballesteros.

"I think I just played with the next god," Curtis Strange said after being paired with Els in the third round during which the South African shot 66. This was on a course which Faldo described as the hardest he has ever seen. Els, Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts went into an 18-hole play-off and Els began with a bogey five and a triple-bogey seven. For most players that would have been the end. Els came back with four birdies.

He has had a ball in Europe but, like Faldo, has committed himself next year to the US Tour. He has bought a house in Florida and his neighbours will be Norman, Price, Nicklaus, Leadbetter and a new kid on the block called Faldo.

Els will miss a pint of real ale but he is prepared to forfeit that for the rays of the Sunshine State and on Jupiter Island he will be playing among the stars.