Published by : Stuart McLean - 10 January 2022

It was 30 years ago this January-February that Ernie Els uniquely won the South African Triple Crown of major tournaments in the same season, a distinction he alone shares with Gary Player.

Ernie Els celebrates
A photo shoot for Sports Illustrated magazine in Cape Town.

What made his feat especially remarkable was that he was 22 at the time and his only previous successes as a professional had been minor “winter tour” events on the Sunshine Tour. 1992 was to prove a momentous year in Ernie’s burgeoning career in the way he transformed himself into a serial winner. This in turn gave him the belief to raise his sights higher on the international stage. He began the year at No 413 on the Official World Golf Ranking, and finished it at No 40.

Between January 16 and February 15, 1992, Els won the SA Open, PGA Championship and SA Masters in the space of five weeks. Player had achieved the same feat in November-December 1979 at the age of 44 in three consecutive weeks. It hasn’t been accomplished since.

The Sunshine Tour back then was very different to the one we have today which embraces a full 12-month calendar. All the tournaments were concentrated into a 3-month window from December to February when our star players would return from playing either in America or Europe to support the local tour. The other difference then was that tournaments finished on a Saturday.

There were 10 tournaments on the schedule, beginning December 12 with the Hall of Fame event at the newly opened Fancourt resort. There were two tournaments before Xmas, the other being the Goodyear Classic at Humewood.

After a two-week festive season break, the players returned for eight weeks of competition in a row. Among them was a sizeable American contingent, which included three players later to become household names on the PGA Tour, Jerry Kelly, Chris Dimarco and Shaun Micheel (he won the 2003 US PGA), and Jimmy Johnson, who now caddies for Justin Thomas.

On the strength of his Order of Merit triumph, Els was given entry by the R&A straight into the Open Championship at Muirfield in July. He finished T-5 in Scotland and from there his international career took off. For the first time he was invited to play in the 1992 Sun City Million Dollar Challenge and finished third.

Els certainly didn’t show any signs of tiredness or lack of enthusiasm during this time. In those eight weeks he not only won four titles, including the very last tournament, the Royal Swazi Sun Classic, but was continually in contention. He never finished outside the top 10, and had a cumulative score of 105-under-par for 32 rounds, an average of 68.7. He comfortably won the Order of Merit.

Nashua and Ping were early sponsors. Note the wooden club in the bag.

The SA Open in January was at Houghton GC, the last time the championship was to be played there. This was the old layout, before Jack Nicklaus redesigned it some 17 years later. Ernie opened with a 65 for the first round lead and never relinquished it, a wire-to-wire winner on 15-under 273, by three from Derek James, now the club pro at Southbroom and one of SA’s top teachers. First prize was R70 695, the biggest on tour. James banked R50 805.

James remembers that season as if it was yesterday. “It kills me every single day of my life thinking about the fact that I failed to win either the SA Open or PGA that summer. I played the best golf of my pro career and it wasn’t good enough.

“I was paired with Ernie in the third round at Houghton. I was lying second (69-66), one behind him. The wind was swirling and conditions were tricky. Ernie played badly I thought, but scrambled brilliantly for a 69, and I shot 73. A 68 on Saturday earned me second place. While Ernie hadn’t won anything big before that, we all knew how special he was. I had played with him in the 1991 SA Open at Durban Country Club and he was moaning to me on the course about the fact he wasn’t winning. I remember saying afterwards to my brother Neil that ‘we’re all in trouble with this oke once he breaks through.’”

The following week was the Lexington PGA at the Wanderers, and here it was another 65, this time in the third round, which propelled Ernie into contention. James had maintained his good form to shoot 66-64-69 the first three days and on 11-under 199 held a slender one-shot advantage over Els. So they were again paired together, with the late Wayne Westner as the third.

“I should have beaten him that final round because all I needed was a one-over-par 71 to match him, but I shot 74 due to a run of bogeys around the turn,” said James. “That day I discovered how difficult it is to win, and how tournament golf mentally affects you under pressure. It has subsequently helped me in my teaching career, because with pupils you can forget how difficult this game is for everyone.”

After the Wanderers the Sunshine Tour went to Mowbray in Cape Town for the Bell’s Cup, and Els had a 64 in round three to lead after 54 holes. But this time it was his turn to fade with a 72 on the final day, and Irishman David Feherty won with a closing 68.

Kensington (since closed) hosted the next event in Johannesburg, the Tournament of Champions, and Els had 17-under to finish one shot behind Bobby Lincoln.

Then came the Masters at a newly opened Dainfern, and Els posted the low opening round of 67. American Omar Uresti had 64 on day two to take the 36-hole lead. Then it was the turn of Chris Williams to seize the initiative (69-66-68) for the last round. Ernie was five shots back, but staged a comeback of which Gary Player would have been proud, closing with 67. Williams signed for 73 to lose by one. It was the only time Els won the Masters.

With the SA Open trophy in 1992.

There’s a connection between the “Triple Crowns” of Els and Player. Both won the SA Open at Houghton and PGA at the Wanderers. Player’s Masters title that year (he won it 10 times) came at Milnerton in Cape Town, and Ernie’s Masters victory came at a Gary Player design.

On the strength of his Order of Merit triumph, Els was given entry by the R&A straight into the Open Championship at Muirfield in July. He finished T-5 in Scotland and from there his international career took off. For the first time he was invited to play in the 1992 Sun City Million Dollar Challenge and finished third.

On a final interesting note, Els began the 1992/93 Sunshine Tour to conclude a momentous year by winning the first two events, the Players Championship at Royal Johannesburg on 18-under and the Goodyear Classic at Humewood on 12-under. His local record for 1992 was six wins in 10 appearances, one runner-up finish, a T-3, and two top 10s. And 135-under-par.

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