The Player: Ernie Els

The Player: Ernie Els
Sean Dudley

Triple major champion Ernie Els has strong views on course design, founded on the experience of his 15 years touring the globe. Adam Lawrence learns more.

Few professional golfers under the age of 40 can have seen and played such a wide range of courses as Ernie Els. Long the best example of a world tour golfer, Els has never been one to confine himself to playing tournaments in one part of the globe, although after a difficult year in 2005, culminating in a serious knee injury, he has gone on record as saying his travel schedule may have to be cut back in future.

“Courses that I really love include Muirfield Village in Ohio, the original Muirfield in Scotland, and Royal Melbourne in Australia. I’m a big fan of the Sand Belt courses around Melbourne,” says Els. “The very best courses have unique shot values – a great course is one that challenges the golfer to think his way round.” His regard for Muirfield, where he won the Open in 2002, is, perhaps unsurprising: aside from the course’s undoubted brilliance, its fairness is often cited by professionals as a reason why they regard the course as the best and purest test of golf on the Open rota.

Els says that, for the top professionals, it is difficulties with the perception of depth that makes the player stop and think twice about the shot. Both bunkering and elevation changes, he says, contribute to this difficulty. His love for Royal Melbourne, one of Alister MacKenzie’s Australian masterpieces, is testimony to this sentiment – MacKenzie, of course, learned the art of camouflage during the First World War, and deployed these skills to great effect: his courses are deceptive and challenge the golfer to overcome the apparent evidence his eyes are presenting.

As a double US Open champion, Ernie long ago demonstrated his ability to overcome – or at least cope with better than most – the uniquely tough setups the USGA prescribes for its national championship. ‘Protecting par’, the USGA mantra, is often criticised by professionals, who argue that narrow fairways, deep rough and concrete hard greens do not make for a fair test of golf. Els, not surprisingly, doesn’t entirely agree. “As long as it isn’t done by gimmicky methods, I think protecting par is a reasonable aim,” he says. “I can understand why people don’t want a major championship to be won with a score of 25 under par.”

Els is based at Wentworth in England, home of the World Matchplay for 40 years, and has won the championship on six occasions. No surprise, then, that he claims a great liking for matchplay events. “Great matchplay courses need to provide options for both players,” he says. “They need to be strategically interesting, and they need to reward aggressive play.” This might be seen as the polar opposite of the typical US Open course, but it is a mark of Els’s ability that he has been able to win in both environments.

On the vexed question of the updating of classic courses to cope with professional tournaments in a world where top golfers can reduce a 500 yard hole to a driver and a short iron, Els sees both sides. “It is a tough question,” he says. “It’s important to preserve classic courses, but if they are to hold big tournaments, then they are going to have to be modernised to keep up with the technology we now have. New courses have value too, as long as they are as good as the older ones.We can’t be sure how much more technology will change golf in the next ten or twenty years – but the game must always remain fun.”

This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2005.