Thirty years after Japan was his proving ground on the world stage, Ernie Els is back and still helping golf expand its frontiers. At 53, Els throws his passion behind the most important things in life. This week, it is support for the groundbreaking ISPS HANDA Championship Japan. In his own life and as a ISPS HANDA ambassador, Els embraces the transformative power of sport promoted by friend and tournament host Dr Haruhisa Handa. “It’s great to be back in Japan. What Dr Handa does around the world of golf is fantastic,” South Africa’s four-time major winner said. “The giving back to community strikes me most.
“Dr Handa covers the whole spectrum. He’s helped golfers with disability and now he’s become a huge and integral part of professional golf sponsoring in Australia, Japan and the DP World Tour.”
Japan became the 51st country to host a DP World Tour event when Els and his fellows pro teed off amidst the tree-lined fairways and manicured greens of PGM Ishioka Golf Club on Thursday.
Els opened with an even-par 70 with three birdies. He flirted with the cut line in his second round before a late birdie-eagle flurry produced a 66 and a safe four-under-par position. He is still an entertainer. He didn’t get everything behind his driver on the 544yd 16th and was left with an awkward distance to the flag on one of just two par fives on the course this week.
“It was three iron distance and I don’t have one in my bag this week. I took four iron. I hit it into the bunker, got a beautiful lie and…bang in the hole,” Els said with a smile.
The eagle had more worth than just on the scorecard. On tournament eve, Dr Handa announced he would be donating US$1000 to the G4D Tour for every eagle at the tournament. Els said he was delighted to be playing the final 36 holes. “There are low scores to be had out there. The European Tour and now the DP World Tour have always been ‘world’ tours and you see it (with the different countries) on the leaderboard.”
DP World Tour chief executive Keith Pelley made it clear that Dr Handa’s involvement had made the leap to staging an event in Japan possible. “He is a pioneer in business and golf and the reason we are here,” Pelley told the audience at the tournament welcome party at the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport. Els had already won multiple events in South Africa but winning the 1993 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan was his first victory abroad.
The young South African beat a hot field by four shots to announce himself to the world. Fred Couples, Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson, Jumbo Ozaki, Vijay Singh and Ian Woosnam were all in his slipstream that week.
“I’d never won outside South Africa before. I remember a big rain on the Sunday of the final round and hitting the ball all over the map but I ground it out,” Els recalled. “It was a very special feeling and gave me all the confidence in the world to keep going.” More than 70 professional victories worldwide are now in his record, including his 65-65 finish to win the Hoag Classic in California on the PGA Champions Tour in March.