ERNIE ELS IS SOAKED. FIVE hours after he began a practice round in the driving rain at the Westchester Country Club in Harrison, N.Y.—preparing for the Buick Classic the following day—it's still pouring. "You know, I really hate playing in the rain," says Els, who finished tied for fourth in the tournament three days later. "But practicing, regardless of the weather, is part of the drill. In this sport, sometimes you just have to struggle through."

Maybe so, but no one has made the struggle seem so effortless as the PGA's 1994 Rookie of the Year. Gifted with a fluid swing (described by Gary Player as the best since Sam Snead's), Els is almost certainly the only PGA player never to have taken a golf lesson. And since turning pro in 1989, he has earned nearly $4 million by winning 15 tournaments worldwide. His U.S. Open victory last year, at 24, made him only the fifth player in 50 years to win one of the world's four major championships before reaching the age of 25. Golf's golden boy has even impressed its Golden Bear. After last year's Open, Jack Nicklaus was asked if Els was destined to be as good as he was. "He could be—or much better," said Nicklaus. "He has the potential to have anything happen."

At 6'3" and 210 lbs., Ernie is something Els. He hits moonshot drives and sinks crucial putts with the poise and flair of a veteran. That's why he is one of the favorites as he defends his Open title beginning June 15 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, in Southampton, N.Y. "[Ernie] is the next god of golf," said two-time Open champ Curtis Strange after last year's Open.

Els, for one, has become wary of the accolades. "It's nice, but I'd rather not hear it," he says. "Nicklaus and Gary Player and all these players think I'm the next one of them, but it just doesn't feel like that to me at the moment. Then again," he adds with a laugh, "maybe these guys know what they're talking about."

The buzz on Els began early. As a young golf fan growing up in Johannesburg, Ernie, whose father was an avid amateur golfer, picked up the sport's fundamentals by watching tournaments on television and then imitating what he saw in the living room. "[As a small boy], he was always swinging golf clubs in the house and breaking things," recalls his mother, Hettie, a housewife. "He would do chip shots with an iron and would send a ball through a window. It was a part of life." Young Ernie also used the family's pool table as a putting green.

At 14, Els, who was also a promising tennis, rugby and cricket player around this time, won the Junior World Championship golf title in San Diego. The win inspired Ernie's father, Neels, 52, the owner of a trucking company, to raze the tennis court in his backyard and build a putting green complete with a sand trap. After graduating high school in 1987, Ernie joined the South African army for a two-year stint. His golf skills kept him in Pretoria, the administrative capital, where he performed desk duty and labored to instruct duffer generals in the finer points of the game.

He turned pro in 1989 and began competing in 1990, but his penchant for partying began to affect his game. Then four months into the tour, he and an intoxicated friend were almost killed when the car the friend was driving overturned. (Els lost two nails on his left hand and suffered severe cuts when his hand was dragged along the pavement. He had to sit out for three months.) "We just gritted our teeth and allowed him his nights out with the boys," says Hettie Els, 50. "But then we thought it was time for a frank chat. We told him, 'You've got the talent and ability and either you do it now, seriously, or you find another job." Says Els: "I wasn't all that serious about my game. I was young then. I would stay out until two in the morning the night before playing and feel tired the next day. I wasn't living right and just felt like this was the time to get focused, stop all the bull and go for it."

In 1992 he did just that and won six big tournaments in South Africa. Two more wins led up to his U.S. Open victory last year.

Els, who intends to keep his South African citizenship, plans to move into a luxury home he's building in Orlando with his South African girlfriend of two years, Liezl Wehmeyer, 24. That is, if they can agree on the decor. "Go ahead," says Wehmeyer, who travels with Els. "Admit what color you wanted the interior to be."

"I wanted a kind of light pink," replies Els, grinning.

"And he thinks I have bad taste," says Wehmeyer.

On other matters, such as marriage, Els and Wehmeyer are in better synch. "Two years is the longest I've ever dated anybody," says Els. "So, I guess it's pretty serious with Liezl. I'm sure one day we'll wake up and know the time is right."

"I agree," says Wehmeyer. "We're still young, and with time this will also be settled."

Els has already resolved another important issue: life after golf. There will be one. "They have a senior tour these days," says Els, "but I can't see myself doing that at 50. At that age, I just want to lie on a beach somewhere and relax."

DRUSILLA MENAKER in Johannesburg

  • Contributors:
  • Drusilla Menaker.