The Performer: Ernie Els

On luck, preparation, and the importance of controlling your emotions — at all times.

Date of birth: 10/17/69
Height/weight: 6’3”/210 lbs.
Career winnings: $35,000,000
PGA wins/majors: 16/3
Average driving distance (yards): 290
Current world ranking: 23
Number of times he’s made the cut in 279 career tournaments: 243

One of the greatest golfers of the modern era, Ernie Els has won 16 PGA Tour events, including three major championships, since bursting onto the scene with a victory in the U.S. Open in 1994. The easygoing South African was recently in Canada for a charity event. He sat down with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.

First of all, how do you define success?
Success in anything is really all about preparation. Obviously, in what I do, there are so many different facets of the game. There’s the short game, which contains bunker play, chipping, pitching, putting. Then you look at your iron play, your driving, your mental game. All of those facets must stack up. And every single one of them needs to be at least an 8 out of 10, or you really can’t compete. That means practice. Lots and lots of practice.

When did you know that golf was your game?
It was very early in my life when the light went on. I loved to play. I loved to watch. I loved to think about golf. All the time. It’s very hard to explain, when you have a true love for something.

Very early on, I had someone to look up to. When I was a young kid, about five years old, I couldn’t get enough of watching Gary Player. He was really getting on in years, and he would only play a few tournaments a year in South Africa. But he was like a god. We would see him on television, winning overseas, and then he’d come home and he was one of us. You felt like, “This is someone important.” I wanted to be like Gary Player.

How do you prepare for a big tournament?
I like to have eight hours of sleep. I always have, ever since I was a kid. I need to feel like I’ve had enough rest. My prep starts 2½ hours before I tee off. I have a shower, get dressed, eat something light — you don’t want to feel weighed down. [He looks down at his hamburger and fries.] Hamburgers are a bad idea. It’s best to just have a lot of small snacks through the day. You don’t want three big meals.

I go to the course and have a stretch for a half an hour. Then I go to the dressing room, put on my shoes and my glove, pick out my golf balls. Then I go to the putting green and hit a few putts to get a sense for the speed of the greens. Then I go to the range, and my caddie will have a map of where all the hole locations are, and we go through each hole, shot by shot, and visualize what we’re going to need to do.

On the range, I’ll try to hit every shot that I might need to hit that day. All you think about then is what you’re going to need to do over the next four hours. Nothing else. Play 18 holes. Hopefully have a smile on your face. Eat lunch. Then start hitting golf balls again and work on everything you did wrong that morning.

What’s the difference between the elite and the rest?
The difference is in the mind. You have got to feel like you belong out there. Like you can handle it. You’ve got to feel like you can play with Tiger. In a perfect world, you want to be on a constantly even keel. You don’t want to be too excited about a good shot, or too excited about a bad shot. You don’t want to feel your heart rate going up and down. Every once in awhile I get there. But you know, there are some shots in a round you look at and think, “F–k, if I could just make this shot, then everything is going to be OK.” Lately, that’s why I’ve not been playing well. Because I’ve been putting too much focus on that one shot. The key is to calm it down. Tap it in and walk to the next hole. Younever win or lose because of one shot. Move on.

Do you ever feel fear?
I have felt fear on the golf course lots of times. You have to hide it. You have to force your mind not to go there. That is why you have to have a process. Your pre-shot routine — that’s your process. Whether there’s water, wind, whatever…you stick to your process. It is critical. When you see the best players in the world pull off amazing shots, it’s because they stuck to their process. And they never change it. The tiniest lapse from that process and you can bet you won’t hit it where you want to.

Do you believe in luck?
I believe that if you believe in luck, it will come to you. If you believe in the negative stuff, that’ll also come.

What about superstition?
I have quite a few superstitions. I do not play with numbered golf balls. White tees only. I’m not a racist, I just like white tees. Some people are not allowed to follow me around the golf course. Some people are jinxes, and they must stay away. And I use a South African coin to mark my golf ball. I’ve been using the same coin for about five years now. I have more, but we’ll leave it at that.

Do you see a competitive nature as a virtue?
It’s natural to be competitive. It’s good to be. But you also have to have the ability to pull it back a little bit because it can get ugly if you let it. I don’t want to lose, but I try to treat people the way I want to be treated.

Are you competitive in other areas of your life?
In business, a lot of things are finally shaping up nicely for me, but it took a long time. I’m not the most patient guy in the world. For a long time, I was a guy who would try to cut to the chase, find the shortcut. But I’ve discovered that things must proceed along their natural course. You can try to rush it, but it’s not going to go the way you think it will. I’m getting better at being patient in business, the sameway I need to be patient in golf. It’s something I’ve learned, and something I’m still learning.

What else do you have left to learn?
I don’t think you ever stop learning. You can learn so many ways. I’d like to be a better father, a better husband, better driver, better putter … better drinker [laughs]. That’s part of the process that never changes.

How will you know when it’s time to retire?
I have no idea how I’ll know when it’s time to quit. When I was playing badly last year, there was a rumour that I was ready to retire, to start making wine and building golf courses. Nothing could have been further from the truth. So I don’t know how I’ll know it’s time to give it up. But I know I’m not there yet.