McIlroy lauds hero Els: 'I named my dog after him'

"I have always been a huge fan of his game but I am a bigger fan of the man."

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Submitted by Charlie Lemay on

Most golf fans know Rory McIlroy counts Tiger Woods as a childhood hero, but you'd be forgiven for overlooking Ernie Els as another source of great inspiration. 

So revered is the four-time major champion, the Northern Irishman even named his dog after the legendary South African, whose full name is Theodore Ernest Els.

"I first played with Ernie at the Singapore Open in 2008 and my caddie JP caddied for Ernie before me so we have always had a decent relationship," he said.

"Ernie was the first big, big name I had played with as a pro. I was nervous but I remember teeing off the tenth tee and I hit three wood past his driver and I thought ‘this is alright!’.

"I always remember that and also the fact that Ernie lost to Jeev (Milkha Singh) in a play-off that week and we were part of the same management company so we went out that night for dinner and a few drinks and had a great time.

"That was the beginning of the relationship and it’s kind of continued from there. I have always been a huge fan of his game but I am a bigger fan of the man and to have been able to get to know him and Liezl and the kids over the past few years in Florida has been great.

"Anything I can do to help Ernie I always will. I actually named my first dog after Ernie – I called him Theo. It’s been a good relationship."

McIlroy gushed ahead of this week's South African Open, an event Els pursuaded the fellow four-time major champion to play in when the pair talked at the Irish Open last year. 

In 2015, Els for Autism opened a Centre of Excellence in Florida, a foundation the player and wife Liezl began after their son Ben was diagnosed with the condition.

"I am fully aware of everything that Ernie is doing with Els for Autism," he said.

"I know Ben very well and the whole family well because we live so close to each other in Florida.

"The work that Ernie does and the school they are building is absolutely incredible and for him to come and help my foundation and then to be able to repay the favour is something I am more than happy and actually honoured to do."

Els tees off with Andy Sullivan and Thomas Aiken at 6.50am on Thursday, while Rory McIlroy plays with defending champion Brandon Stone and George Coetzee at 7.10 am.