LOS ANGELES – “Would you be available to play with the president of the United States of America?”
Ernie Els wasn’t the first PGA Tour professional to answer a phone call that began with such a request, but he may have been the most surprised.
Els was sitting at home in South Florida nursing a sore neck after withdrawing from the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am when his phone rang last Friday. It was David Trout, the director of golf at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., with an once-in-a-lifetime request.
“Bang, there goes my hair again,” Els smiles as he glances down at his arm and the byproduct of lingering chills. “Of course I would [play], what kind of question is that? I would play with him even if I was half dead.”
Els had met Donald Trump before and despite what has become an increasingly polarizing personality, he respected him. The real-estate-mogul-turned-leader-of-the-free-world had become influential in golf long before he moved into the White House and the South African had worked with him on various projects involving his foundation.
But this was different. This was POTUS along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with the entire world watching.
“It was one of the most special groups of people I’ve been around. I played with the queen of Malaysia, I’ve played with other presidents, but this is the most powerful guy in the whole world and to see him in his full security detail, it’s impressive,” said Els on Tuesday as he prepared for this week’s Genesis Open. “But to play with him as president puts him in another atmosphere.”
Played golf today with Prime Minister Abe of Japan and @TheBig_Easy, Ernie Els, and had a great time. Japan is very well represented!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2017
Els said he met with the Japanese prime minster at about 9 a.m. on Saturday at Trump National Golf Club, one of Trump’s numerous golf properties. Although the Big Easy said he’d never played golf with Trump before, he could easily imagine how this time would have been different.
While opinions on Trump vary wildly and it certainly has been an eventful few weeks for the president, for Els this had nothing to do with the current state of American politics or campaign promises. This was an opportunity to be savored.
“It would have been like a buddy back then, but it’s all about the President of the United States,” Els said. “I was all about, ‘Mr. President’ and ‘sir’ and all of that. I wanted to use that protocol because that’s what a man in that position deserves.”
Like many people in golf, Els has a unique perspective on the president. Before Trump went on the campaign trail, he was one of the game’s most influential executives who may exude a ruthless exterior but, in truth, embraces the central tenets of the game, most notably golf’s many charitable components.
In 2015, the Els Center of Excellence opened in Jupiter. The school for Autistic students is part of the Els for Autism foundation, which is supported through various tournaments and outings. It’s also how Els first met the future president.
“[Trump] has a lot of [golf] properties and he’s given us a couple of his properties free of charge,” Els said. “That’s a huge help because we have to pay green fees and everything at other courses. He’s always been helpful.”
For much of last Saturday’s round, the conversation with the First Golfer focused on Els’ foundation and how the president could help.
“He wants to be helpful, he wants to be in,” Els said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. He wants to know everything.”
As is always the case when it comes to Trump and golf there was also a competition, with the president teaming with the Japanese prime minister and Trout against Els.
“That’s a fair fight,” Els laughed with an eye roll.
At this point diplomacy gets the best of Els, who said he started the round slowly as he recovers from a bout with the flu as well as the lingering neck injury.
“I got it going on the back nine, made some birdies and stuff,” he added with a wink. “I’d call it a tie. How’s that for a diplomatic answer?”
Els really doesn’t do politics, which is probably a result of growing up in South Africa, but he certainly proved to be a quick study when it came to international relations and executive privilege.