A NEDBANK GOLF CHALLENGE SPECIAL MEMORY AHEAD OF THIS WEEK’S TOURNAMENT
1999: Pure gold by lion-like Els
After seven lean years in the tournament – in the sense that he came tantalisingly close but never won it – Ernie Els finally hit the $1-million jackpot at Sun City.
Thirty years old at the time, he won the 1999 Nedbank Golf Challenge in style by smashing a record that looked to stand forever and a day.
Els had rounds of 67, 66, a record-equalling 64 and a 66 for a sensational 25-under-par aggregate of 263 over the iconic Gary Player Country Club course. Nick Price had shot 264 in 1993 and few believed that would ever be beaten.
“I can’t believe how I feel,” said the Big Easy as he sipped champagne in the pressroom after his victory. “When I walked up to the 18th green I had goose-bumps from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I’ve never felt that before, even when I won my two US Opens.”
Ernie won by five from Colin Montgomerie, world No. 3 at the time, who closed with a 68 for 268, 20-under-par and also a brilliant return (a score that would have won all but two of the Sun City showpieces held to date).
Els, followed by the tens of thousands of fans that made up ‘Ernie’s Army’, admitted that his mind had played games with him in the final round. “I hadn’t won a tournament for 10 months and you begin to doubt yourself, I guess. But I was determined to remain focused and not let this one get away from me. Now it’s like there’s a great big hairy gorilla off my back. I was beginning to think I’d be an old man before I won this tournament.
“I’ve come so close before (in 1996 he tied at the top with Montgomerie only for the Scot to win the play-off, and in 1997 he finished one back of winner Nick Price) but never won. This week the fans put pressure on me like you can’t believe. But seriously, that pressure aside, I’d like to thank the South African golfing public for sticking by me all these years. They were fantastic out there. Absolutely fantastic. I so badly wanted to win, not only for myself but for them.”
Ernie’s wife Liezel and five-month-old baby daughter Samantha (now a university graduate and a member of the Springbok women’s rugby team!) were there to greet him as he sunk the winning putt, with tens of thousands of spectators – including Gary Player – roaring their approval.
Most of the lions in this part of the world are in the nearby Pilanesburg game reserve, but in 1999 there was a lion on the 18th green at Sun City – Ernie Els.
And so, who will be that lion this year?
Written by veteran golf writer and Randpark member Grant Winter who reported on the tournament for 30 straight years.