When Congressional hosted the Booz Allen Classic in 2005, General Manager Mike Leemhuis held a barbecue on the property, inviting golfers from his native South Africa. Each new arrival asked the same question: “Is Ernie Els going to be here?”
Els is here this year for the Quicken Loans National, returning to the course that has seen him at his best and his worst. He won one U.S. Open at Congressional , and he missed the cut at another. As golf trends younger, with stars such as 20-year-old Jordan Spieth , Els remains the timeless figure with the mystifyingly effortless swing.
Els’s 1997 U.S. Open win at Congressional, his second major victory, elevated him to star status and inspired a score of young South African golfers. He’s still a star to them at 44, most recently winning the British Open in 2012.
“The guys that are getting in their 40s now, golf is still a passion for us,” Els said. “You might not spend as much time on the practice tees, but your time that you spend is really focused time. Golf is still very much a number one priority in my life.”
PGA Tour rookie Tyrone Van Aswegen was nervous when he first met Els, a physically imposing figure at 6 feet 3, 210 pounds. When Van Aswegen finally introduced himself, he found Els personable, someone who could make conversation with a stranger on the street.
Van Aswegen, 32, had just started playing golf when he saw Els on television for the first time: his U.S. Open win at Congressional. Van Aswegen said South Africa was golf crazy after that, leading to young stars such as Trevor Immelman, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, all of whom have won majors.
The younger generation was captivated by his swing, for which he earned his nickname, “The Big Easy.” It’s both athletic and smooth, effortless and effective.
“He was my idol for sure growing up,” Van Aswegen said. “Kids grow up wanting to swing like him.”
As Immelman walked onto the driving range before his pro-am round Wednesday, he stopped to sign autographs for kids. “This was me when I was 5,” he said.
One of Immelman’s earliest memories is of the first time he saw Els play. As Immelman’s junior career blossomed, he would stay with Els anytime he played a tournament in the United States.
“He’s just had a demeanor and a way about him and technique with his golf game that has stood the test of time,” Immelman said. “It’s stood technology changing, and it’s stood younger players coming on tour to where he won a major a couple of years ago in his 40s.”
Younger golfers utilize advanced statistics, but Els said he hates it, preferring to rely on his own feel and instincts. Els has made slight tweaks to his swing because of injuries, but he’s stayed true to “The Big Easy.”
Els grew up playing with experienced golfers such as Greg Norman and Nick Price and said he loves playing with the sport’s young stars, just as he did. Van Aswegen said the veteran was gracious in answering many questions about Els’s career during a practice round one day. Els has been generous with his time in mentoring juniors and amateurs coming out of South Africa, according to Immelman.
“They are definitely not shy,” Els said of the younger stars. “They are cocky enough to know that they are good. But we like to teach them some stuff every now and again that they haven’t seen.”
Returning to Congressional is bittersweet for Els. Els said the year he missed the U.S. Open cut — 2011 — was the worst of his PGA Tour career. It tainted some memories of the course for him but not enough to keep him away.
Leemhuis won’t be hosting a barbecue on the property this year, but Els still will be here. Because he won the U.S. Open at Congressional, Els is an honorary member, getting to stay on the grounds with his daughter.
“He calls up and says, ‘I want my same room as I had last time,’ ” Leemhuis said. “We know what he wants, and we try to take care of him when he’s here.”