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A look back: 25 signature moments as the Big Easy turns 50

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The owner of one of the game’s most iconic swings turns 50 on Thursday and it’s been an eventful half-century for Ernie Els. From his stunning championship debut at the 1994 U.S. Open to his generational walk-off at the 2012 Open Championship, the Big Easy has always been entertaining.

Whether it was his smooth swing or his South African candor there is no shortage of signature moments for Els. Here's a look at 25 of his best:

  • If the ’94 U.S. Open was the world’s introduction to Els it was the Junior World Championship at Torrey Pines a decade earlier when he gave a glimpse of what was to come with his victory over Phil Mickelson for the boys 13-14 title.

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  • The ’94 U.S. Open was just his 17th PGA Tour start, but he looked like a veteran coming down the stretch at Oakmont when he defeated Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff.
  • In what is statistically his most dominant performance on Tour, Els won the 1996 Buick Classic by eight strokes thanks to an opening-round 65 and a 13-under total.
  • Els would win his second major in three years at the 1997 U.S. Open when he defeated Montgomerie, again, by a stroke. The timing of his second major is noteworthy as it coincided with the beginning of the Tiger Woods era, which proved to be bittersweet for Els.
  • The defending champion at the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic, Els began the final round in Thailand eight strokes ahead of Woods, but Tiger closed with a 65 and defeated Els on the second playoff hole. The event was the start of a largely one-sided rivalry.
  • Els was named the captain of the 2019 International Presidents Cup team and although his record, like most of the International side, isn’t great, he does lead the rest of the world with 21 points earned in the matches, including a 3-1-1 record at the ’98 Presidents Cup. It’s the only time the Internationals have won the event.

Best of: Ernie Els through the years

A look through the career of four-time major champion Ernie Els.


  • Of Els’ 19 Tour victories, the 1999 Nissan Open is compelling because it was one of the few times he came out on the favorable end of a Sunday duel with Woods, who tied for second two strokes back despite two late bogeys from Els on Sunday.
  • The 2000 season-opener in Maui turned out to be a foreshadowing event for Els when he went head-to-head with Woods in the final round. After matching eagles on the 72nd hole, the two went to a playoff that Woods eventually won with a 40-footer for birdie on the second extra hole. “I think he’s a legend in the making. He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis,” Els said at the time.
  • Although often overlooked, the 2000 International was crucial for Els because it kept alive his victory streak on the PGA Tour. It was his seventh consecutive year with at least one win.
  • No other player endured as much competitive heartache because of Woods, and the 2000 U.S. Open was, depending on your point view, the low-water mark of that futility when Els finished alone in second and 15 strokes behind Woods. Tiger’s performance shattered Old Tom Morris’ record for margin of victory in a major which led to one of Els’ most memorable answers. “Old Tom Morris?” Els fumed. “Old Tom Morris? If you put Old Tom Morris with Tiger, Tiger would probably beat him by 80 shots right now.”
  • Els outlasted a Sunday charge from Woods at the 2002 Genuity Championship for a two-stroke victory. Prior to that Sunday, Els had finished second to Woods six times.
  • The Big Easy’s third major victory may have been the most grueling with Els enduring a four-way playoff to claim the claret jug in 2002. The victory was highlighted by what Els considers his most clutch shot when he scrambled for par from a particularly bad lie in a bunker on the 13th hole.

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  • Els’ year got off to a perfect start when he claimed the 2003 Aloha Slam with victories at the Mercedes Championship and Sony Open. After dominating the lid-lifter with an eight-stroke victory he beat Aaron Baddeley in a playoff in Honolulu.
  • Ties in golf simply don’t work, but the 2003 Presidents Cup in South Africa was the exception. When the matches ended in a tie, captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player sent Els and Woods out in a winner-take-all playoff. The extra frames went a frenzied three holes in the dark before the captains decided to share the cup.
  • His commanding four-stroke victory at the 2004 Memorial was his first triumph at Jack’s Place, and also delivered the last leg of the Legend’s Slam following victories at the 1995 Byron Nelson and at the 1998 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
  • Els never won the money list or FedExCup but he came close in 2004 when he won three times – Sony Open, Memorial and WGC-American Express Championship – and had 10 top-10 finishes to finish second in earnings.
  • Els was even more prolific on the European Tour in his career winning 28 times including seven World Match Play titles with the last coming in 2007.
  • Els ended a PGA Tour victory drought that had stretched to nearly four years with his triumph at the 2008 Honda Classic.
  • Much like he did in 2003 in Hawaii, Els dominated the Florida swing in 2010 with victories at the WGC-CA Championship, which was played at Doral, and Bay Hill. He was 29 under par over that span.
  • A decade after winning his first Open Championship Els pulled off an improbable comeback against Adam Scott in 2012 at Royal Lytham. Six strokes off the lead, Els finished with a flawless 4-under closing nine for a one-shot victory over faltering Scott.

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  • Els’ near-misses at the Masters include a pair of runner-up finishes and six top-10 showings. The most painful of those bridesmaid performances came in 2004 when he finished a stroke behind Phil Mickelson after closing with a 67.
  • The other piece of the Grand Slam puzzle that eluded Els was the PGA Championship where he had six top-10s in 25 starts with his best chance to win coming in 1995 when he tied for third and was two shots behind eventual champion Steve Elkington.
  • His most recent victory on the European Tour came at the 2013 BMW International Open, where he closed with three consecutive 69s to beat Thomas Bjorn by a stroke. “I'm a very young 43-year-old. There's not a younger 43-year-old, I promise,” Els joked.
  • It was actually Rickie Fowler who made the hole-in-one, but it was Els’ vision that made it happen. Els – who established the Els for Autism Foundation in 2009, with son, Ben, who is autistic – annually hosts a pro-am for his foundation, and at the 2016 event, Fowler made a hole-in-one that was worth $1 million for the charity.
  • Els was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. His career numbers: four major titles, 19 PGA Tour wins, 28 European Tour titles, 16 Sunshine Tour wins, no fewer than 20 other victories, seven Presidents Cup appearances as a player, and one of the greatest swings ever.