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Who Els, but Ernie?





You're going to have to trust me here, but there used to be a mashie golf course in Lonehill, in Johannesburg's northern suburbs.

I say trust me, because Google denies its existence and my extensive library of golf books don't mention it, either. Yet I know it existed, because I played it several times in the early 90s.

If there is anyone out there who can find concrete proof that it is not a figment of my imagination, please post it in the comments section below.

Why is it significant? Well, again you're going to have to trust me here, but I remember being told when I played it, that it was the venue for the first significant win of Ernie Els' career. And I was reminded of it this week, when Facebook threw up a picture of the 14-year-old Ernie, standing alongside the equally youthful Phil Mickelson in San Diego in 1984.

The occasion was Ernie winning the Junior World Golf Championship in the Boys 13-14 category. The gawky kid from Kempton Park sports a hairstyle that looks like someone turned over a bowl of spaghetti onto his head. Phil is a few inches taller and looks less than chuffed to be beaten by some upstart from Africa.

And here's the significant point: in order to get to San Diego, Ernie had to win the South African qualifier. And he did that at Lonehill.

If I remember correctly, it had a par-5 and a couple of par-4s, the rest were par-3s of varying length and difficulty. It was rocky and open, with a small stream running through the middle.

Inevitably, it must have succumbed to the rampant development of Jo'burg's northern suburbs and is now almost certainly buried beneath some of the most expensive housing on the continent. Wouldn't it be great if we could somehow find out where the clubhouse was and put one of those blue plaques up there?

Incidentally, the Junior World Golf Championship is still going and this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. It boasts no fewer than 11 former champions who have won professional major championships. One of the 11 is a certain Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, who won six times in four different age group categories between 1984 and 1991.

In 1984 Tiger was eight. Think about that. Eight. He shot a three-under-par 51 at the par three Presidio Hills Golf Course to beat Chris Riley (a future PGA Tour player) by two shots. Riley was two years older and remembers Tiger “had the Coke-bottle thick glasses, but he could flat-out play.”

It was interesting to hear similar praise coming from Mickelson, when he and Ernie spoke to the press ahead of the first round of the USPGA at Quail Hollow, some 33 years after the fact. The two were in the spotlight this week as both are playing their 100th major at this week's PGA Championship.

Phil remembered: “You hit this little skipping, spinning wedge shot that checked up about a foot from the hole, and that’s when I knew you were going to be a good player because I had not seen anybody else at 14 hit that shot.”

Five years later, Ernie qualified for his first major, the 1989 Open Championship at Troon. His caddy was elder brother Dirk, which reminds me of one of my favourite Els stories. He told me that he and Dirk played together for Southern Transvaal at the interprovincial tournament. They played foursomes, the alternate-shot format.

Ernie was complaining that he put Dirk in great positions, only to have his boet smear him into the rough all the time. An argument began early in the round and finally, at a par-5, it was Ernie's turn to drive.

Dirk walked 300m down the fairway to where he thought the ball might land, at which point Ernie turned around and hit the ball back the way they had come!


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