From venturing into winemaking to speaking out on autism, Ernie Els extends his game beyond the golf course

They call him the Big Easy, an admiring nod to the 6-foot-4 champion golfer’s swing that flows like warm cream over smooth rocks, and it may be the most accurate nickname in sports.

But an even more apt alter moniker might be the Big Business, for there’s far more to Ernie Els than trying to add to his collection of major championship trophies.

Els, winner of two U.S. Opens and one British Open, as well as both of Hawaii’s PGA Tour events, the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua and the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, is also the head of an international corporation with wide-ranging interests.

For starters, and the most obvious diversion from the vagabond life of a professional golfer, is his golf course architectural business, Ernie Els Design, based in Virginia Water, England. He’s built or is building golf courses from Dubai to China, from the Bahamas to Mauritius, and from his native South Africa to Hawaii. At this writing, half the holes at Hoakalei Country Club at Ewa Beach had been grassed, and the course is scheduled for a fall opening. The first big event will be the Ernie Els Charity Cup in January. (See sidebar on page 41 for more on Els’ work at Hoakalei.)

A more recent entrepreneurial diversion, and one not nearly so linear, is his venture into winemaking. Ernie Els Wines, based at Stellenbosch in South Africa’s Capeland wine country, produces four labels: Ernie Els, a blend of all five Bordeaux varieties; Engelbrecht Els Vineyards, a proprietor’s blend combining Els’ Bordeaux-style palate and partner Jean Engelbrecht’s love for Shiraz; Cirrus, a joint venture Engelbrecht pioneered with the Duncan family of Napa, and Guardian Peak, a range of red wines made in a fruit-driven style for, as they say, “early enjoyment.”

As Els says, “All quality. All red. I mean seriously red.” And seriously good. At the 2007 Sélections Mondiales des Vins, the Engelbrecht Els 2004 received a Grand Gold Award and was one of only 10 wines from around the globe and one of only two South African wines to achieve the honor. The Ernie Els 2003 received a Gold Medal, adding to an already impressive list of awards.

Clearly, this is a man who likes trophies.

Els says that golf and wine are related for him because he is a “perfectionist” and that “no two activities bear the truth of the pursuit of perfection more than the perfect round of golf and the perfect bottle of wine.”

Combining his passions for golf and wine, Els has also ventured into the tour business. Ernie Els Wine and Golf Safaris offer exclusive Рjust eight people per tour Рoutings to the finest golf courses and wineries in South Africa. And because Els is, well, Els Рwhich is to say fourth behind only God, Nelson Mandela and Gary Player in his homeland, but not necessarily in that order Рhis safaris provide entr̩e to both private country clubs and winery cellars that other tours do not.

The Big Business’ newest venture is a line of leisurewear and accessories. The Ernie Els Collection is still in the startup and design phase, but the company says items will be inspired by Els’ global rambling as a professional golfer. Initially the product line will include wallets, sport bags, overnight bags, passport and document holders.

As with all of his products, Els says nothing will go to market until he is “satisfied that the standard of quality I demand can be achieved.”

It all started back in Kempton Park, just east of Johannesburg. A natural athlete and big for his age, young Ernie played rugby, cricket and tennis. He was good enough as a junior tennis player to win the Eastern Transvaal Junior Championships at age 13. Els learned the game of golf at the Kempton Park Country Club, where he caddied for his father Neels, and started playing at age 8. By 14 he was a scratch handicapper and began to focus exclusively on golf. A year after winning that tennis title, he won the Junior World Golf Championship in the Boys 13-14 category, Phil Mickelson finishing second and a lad name of Tiger Woods winning the Boys 9-10. (They’re still winning, with Woods No. 1 in the world ranking, Mickelson second and Els third.)

He turned pro at age 20, in 1969, after winning the South African Amateur, and two years later won his first tournament as a pro, on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. Today he has 16 PGA Tour wins, including those three majors, and has twice won the European PGA Tour’s Order of Merit (most money won). As a testament to Els’ talent, perfectionism and longevity, he’s been in the top 10 for more than 700 weeks, a record being pursued by Woods and Mickelson.

It appears to be a wonderful life. Champion golfer, considered one of the game’s most beloved ambassadors around the world, remarkable entrepreneurial success, and at home in Wentworth, England, a beautiful wife, Liezl, and two handsome children, daughter Samantha and son Ben. As if everything were as easy as that fluid, rhythmic swing.

Or so it seemed until last year when Ben, then 5, was diagnosed with autism. In typical understated Els style, he didn’t make a big announcement, just started carrying a golf bag – OK, his caddie carried it – emblazoned with the words “Autism Speaks.” Only when queried about it by reporters did Els speak up.

“Obviously it’s been a bit of a challenge,” he tells HILuxury. “As any family in our position will tell you, it’s not easy. It’s a change of life, a change of priorities. Millions of families all over the world have a loved one affected by this condition, and that’s why we contacted the charity Autism Speaks and why I put the logo on my bag. We want to do all we can to raise awareness and raise money for the disorder. I’ve obviously got a bit of a high profile, and that will help grab some attention. And that’s what this problem needs. Hopefully more people will get involved and we can start finding out more about what causes this condition and what can be done to help it. Anyone can check out their website, www.autismspeaks.org”

To get better care for Ben, the family is relocating to Jupiter Island, Fla.

Looking at the body of this man’s work, a champion at everything he’s tried, as he tees off against autism you’d have to say there’s great hope for the sufferers and the families of this awful malady.

Cheers, Mr. Els, and good luck.

The sixth and seventh holes lie just across a narrow asphalt road from Barbers Point Golf Course. People walk across the road and peer through the chain-link fence, curious about what’s being created on the other side.

The answer appears to be “a gem.”

Holes 1-7 had been grassed in on this day, as well as 11-12, while topsoil was being laid down on several holes, including the 18th.

The 12th is a par-3 that plays 195 from the tips, playing over water through a semi-cross wind to a smallish green encircled by seven bunkers, as if under siege. Ernie Els, as a designer at least, likes sand. But while he utilizes vast waste areas of coral and in some places chipped kiawe off fairways, most bunkers are connected to green complexes.

“If you’ll notice, Ernie is fairly generous off the tee, and you can put your ball in play,” says Nancy Maeda, executive vice president of project developer Haseko. “He’s much more demanding on approach shots – he believes that’s where the skill and strategy really come into play.”

Els is so particular about his bunkers, on a recent visit he brought along a practice mat and hit shot after shot from each bunker, judging each one and eventually altering a few.

Els is also big on water hazards. Hoakalei is dotted with

seven lakes totalling 30 acres. The lake that runs the entire left side of the par-5 18th hole, and comes into play on holes two and eight, is eight acres (and looks like a great venue for water skiing). Playing into the prevailing trade winds, this is automatically one of the great wager-settling holes in Hawaii.

Kiawe trees provide overhead hazards. Els says they remind him of trees in South Africa and calls them “those thorny trees.”

When completed this fall, Hoakalei will stretch about 7,400 yards from the tips, suitable for the long knockers of the PGA Tour, whom Els hopes to lure for a tournament.

The golf course, along with a new, world-class marina, is a magnet for the rest of the upscale development at Hoakalei. Eventual plans call for commercial shops and a hotel, but the biggest activity currently under way is construction of 900 luxury homes in the Ka Makana community with its broad sidewalks, offering up to 22 different models with 36 different “looks,” up to 3,600 square feet under roof. HILuxury toured several models, including a four-bedroom dazzler above the aforementioned 12th hole, and they are quite luxurious and impressively designed.

Like the golf course outside.

7 Questions with Ernie Els

HILUXURY: What was your philosophy coming in, and what have been the challenges in designing your new course at Hoakalei?

ERNIE ELS: “From a technical standpoint, I would say this was one of the most challenging sites I’ve ever seen, but the guys have done an incredible job. We’ve dropped the ground level by as much as 20 or 30 feet in places, basically cutting through the coral right down to the natural water table level, which meant we had to introduce a whole new vegetative pallet. And massive construction work involving D10 and D11 bulldozers, heavy-duty machines usually reserved for mining, has moved millions of cubic yards of material. This course is manufactured, so to speak, but it looks like it belongs in its environment. It looks natural.”

HL: The Hoakalei developers really pursued you, even visiting you in London. What made you decide to take on the project?

EE: “Yeah, it was hard to say no in the end! Seriously, I’ve been travelling here to Hawaii for more than 10 years for family holidays and Tour events. We love Hawaii, and designing this golf course was an experience I would not have wanted to pass up. Hopefully, we’ll be in a position to host a professional tournament some time in the future. That was part of our vision from the start – it was one of the attractions, too.”

HL: What pleases you most about the project and your design?

EE: “I think the overall design works well in the environment that we created for it. Again, we’ve designed something that looks like it belongs, like it’s always been there. That’s something we’re serious about. I mean, as golf course designers we have a responsibility to keep one eye on the environment and try to ensure that a golf course leaves a gentle footprint, so to speak. We must be sensitive to these issues and flexible in terms of balancing the needs of our clients and the environment.”

HL: You worked with Jack Nicklaus early in your design career. What did you take with you from that, and what other architects have influenced you most?

EE: “It’s interesting to look back and learn from some of the great architects of the past, the likes of Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie and Harry Colt. And, yeah, I learnt a lot from those few years in partnership with Jack. I’ve learnt a lot from Greg Letsche, too, who was working for Jack but is now our head of design. He’s got a lot of experience in this business, having started with Pete Dye and then, as I say, working for Jack. I really value his ideas and opinions. But at the end of the day, I’m very much my own man. I think every golfer has his own ideas about what makes a great golf course – it’s just the way your eye sees things.”

HL: You were part of the greatest golf match ever played in Hawaii – the final round of the 2000 Mercedes – which you unfortunately did not win despite playing the 18th hole eagle-eagle-birdie on the 72nd hole and two playoff holes. Any thoughts/memories about that round?

EE: “I remember it was the wrong result! No, seriously, I guess it was a pretty exciting day’s golf for the spectators. But I was caught up in trying to win that golf tournament. Tiger obviously played great that day (burying a long birdie putt on the third playoff hole). It’s the kind of thing we’ve got used to from him, I guess. The main emotion for me, though, was disappointment. None of us like losing.”

HL: Summer coincides with the U.S. Open and British Open. You’ve won a total of three of those. How are you feeling about your game going into the two open, and how do those courses suit you?

EE: “I’ve played Torrey Pines (site of the U.S. Open) only once as a professional, in the Buick back in 2005, where I shot 65 in the first round and finished sixth. Also, I won the World Juniors there in 1984. Not sure any of that’s going to make much of a difference in 2008, but I’m obviously looking forward to it. As you say, I’ve won two U.S. Opens so I know what it takes to win.

EE: “And the British … wow, I just love that tournament, the history and the atmosphere. There’s nothing else like it. And I love links golf. To me, it’s the purest form of golf and the most fun. I like that you have to use your imagination and really work your golf ball. No two days are the same in a British Open. It’s my favorite tournament of the year, and to be honest I always like my chances going into that week.”

HL: When you’re home, do you cook for your family? If so, any best dishes?

EE: “I think Liezl prefers it if I stay out of the kitchen! Cooking isn’t my strongest suit. I can do a mean braai, though (South African for barbecue). A really nice steak on a braai is one of my favorite meals. With a nice bottle of red wine.

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