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Ernie Els talks career, majors, LIV, and more ahead of Regions Tradition in Birmingham

Each year, the Regions Tradition has become one of the most anticipated golf events in Alabama as the best of the PGA Champions Tour converge on Greystone Country Club in the Magic City.

Last year, PGA legend and 4x major winner Ernie Els finished tied for second at 17 under,  six strokes behind winner Steve Stricker.

Els talked with Yellowhammer News about his career as well as some of the biggest topics in the world of golf ahead of this year’s edition the Regions Tradition:

How are you enjoying life on the Champions Tour and how does it differ from the PGA Tour?

“It’s very different to the PGA TOUR, as you’d expect. But I’m really enjoying it. It’s fun competing with the guys of my generation. We’re all very motivated, working hard on our games still and on our physical conditioning – you know, it takes a little longer for the engine to warm-up when you’re over 50. But seriously, the standard is extremely high, you’ve really got to be on your game to win out here.”

The golf world is obviously in a massive state of flux right now. LIV Tour, DP World Tour. Did you ever have an offer from LIV and what are your thoughts on it?

“No, I’ve not had an offer. But I wouldn’t have said yes anyway. Listen, I know some of the Saudi guys; they genuinely love the game of golf. But the LIV current format is not proper golf. It wouldn’t have been for me, whatever stage of my career I was at.”

You were very outspoken against PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan after the LIV deal last year. What do you think now as there seems to have been a pause on it and has your opinion changed over the last year?

“No, not really. Obviously I hope they can work out their differences, because this mess is not good for our sport. We’ll have to see. But the fact remains, to my mind, the LIV golf format doesn’t work, not in the way they’re playing at the moment. Maybe there’s a place for team golf within the global schedule – maybe put some teams together, play a two-month happy season, so to speak. But the rest of the year, let’s play real golf.”

You had a wide range between your first PGA win at 25 and last at 43. When would you say you were in your prime and how did you adjust over a long career?

“Hard to pinpoint an exact time, but probably from the mid-90s and around 10-15 years after that. Obviously you’re always working on every aspect of your game and your mindset, trying to find ways to get better. That’s just how it is at the top of the game. Like the old adage, if you’re standing still, you’re probably going backwards.”

You won your first major on an 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Open in 1994 at Oakmont. The U.S. Open was the only major decided by an 18-hole playoff. In 2018, they changed it to a format more similar to the other majors. What do you think of that change and what do you remember about that 5th day to win in 1994?

“I understand why they’ve made the change. Logistically it makes a lot of sense. But as a player, I think you’d rather go into an 18-hole playoff. It’s probably a fairer way to decide things. Looking back at that fifth day in 1994, it was brutal. It was scorching hot all week, so by Monday we were all hot and bothered. And the golf course had been massacred by the hot weather. The start of the round was a bit of a debacle, but I kept my composure and played well, shot 3-over on what I thought was the toughest golf course I’d ever played. Putted great that whole week, which was the key.”

You also won a four man four hole playoff to win the Open Championship. Difference in mindset in an 18-hole playoff the next day vs. 4 holes that day?

“That was very different. For most of that final round I was in control, then a couple of mistakes and everything changed. Just before we went out for the playoff I remember Jos Vanstiphout, who I was working with at the time, telling me to pull my finger out of my backside! [laughs] It was just what I needed to hear, kind of got me focused on what was ahead rather than what had just happened. I had to hole a bit of a knee-knocker there on 18…but what a feeling. It’s relief at first. Then you start to enjoy it later.”

You have done a lot of charity work through your Els for Autism Foundation, do you think you have been able to make a positive impact for autism awareness using your golf celebrity?

“Absolutely. That’s what we set out to do when we started our foundation in 2009, we could use my name to really help get that ball rolling. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. We have an incredible facility here in Florida [The Els Center of Excellence] and the team are doing such a wonderful job with the support of our generous and loyal family of partners, donors and sponsors. It’s so humbling for Liezl and me. We have to pinch ourselves sometimes, but obviously it’s something we’re immensely proud of. The work we do at the foundation is making a positive impact on the lives of people with autism, and of course their families, literally all around the world. This will be our life’s work.”

Which course is your favorite and which victory is your favorite of your four majors?

“That’s a tough one. Whenever I’m asked that question I always choose my top-3 courses, so I go with Royal Melbourne, Oakmont and Muirfield, in no particular order. I rank my four major wins the same way I rank my children, equal favourite [laughs].”

You finished second in The Masters twice. Would you trade any of your four majors for a Green Jacket?

“That’s an easy one. No.”

What do you think the possible impact on the Champions Tour would be if Tiger Woods eventually joined?

“I think it’s pretty easy to see how that might go. Obviously it’ll attract a lot of interest from fans, from TV and from sponsors, too. Tiger’s the biggest name in our sport and that isn’t ever going to change. It’ll be a win-win for the Tour, no question.”

If there is one event you could have an exemption to play in yearly for the rest of your career, which event would it be?

“To be honest, I don’t really see myself as a ceremonial golfer. I like to compete, I like to play to win, that’s what has always driven me. When that’s gone, I don’t think I’m going to feel the same about playing.”

Tickets to watch Els and the slate of PGA Tour Champions compete in the Regions Tradition teeing off this Wednesday at Greystone Country Club in Birmingham are available for purchase here. 

Michael Brauner is a Senior Sports Analyst and Contributing Writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @MBraunerWNSP

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