Ernie Els returned from honeymoon with a rusty swing and a glistening new ring on his finger - but even lack of practice could not prevent him from claiming a fifth European Tour title by winning the Alfred Dunhill South African PGA Championship.
The 29-year-old, who married his long-time girlfriend, Liezl, on New Year’s Eve, ended ten months without an individual victory by cruising to a four-stroke victory at Houghton Golf Club, scene of his successes in the same event in 1992 and 1995.
Victory was the perfect wedding present for his new wife and an ideal start to the last golfing season of the old Millennium for Els, who was accorded Honorary Life Membership of the European Tour a few weeks ago.
To add to his idyllic start to 1999, Els fielded a congratulatory phone call from South African President, Nelson Mandela, soon after completing his comfortable victory.
Starting the day two strokes ahead of compatriot Richard Kaplan, Els carded a fourth successive sub-70 round, a flawless four-under-par 68 for a 15-under-par total of 273, to beat Kaplan by four shots and take home the first prize of 83564 euro and head the new Volvo Order of Merit.
South African David Frost, Stephen Leaney of Australia, India's Jeev Milkha Singh and England's Steve Webster, all shared third place on an eight-under-par total of 280. Webster’s strong finish moves him into the tenth spot in the Ryder Cup Points Table.
On Saturday Els and Kaplan had duelled all day for the lead, but the final round was a procession as Els carded three birdies over the first nine and then cruised home with just one birdie in another blemish-free round.
During the entire tournament Els dropped just four shots -- a double bogey during Thursday's opening round and then two bogeys during the third round - an impressive effort in view of Els’ revelation that his honeymoon had been marked by a constant round of parties, late-night revelry and emphatically no golf!
It was the powerful South African’s first individual win since the Bay Hill Invitational in March, although he, Frost and Retief Goosen did retain the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St.Andrews in October.
"It's nice to get a win under the belt especially when you've just put a ring on your finger," Els admitted. "If there was a disappointment this week, it was my putting, but I probably hit the ball today better than I have for a long time."
Els now believes that the World No1 ranking, a position he held for two months in 1998, is within reach especially as the back problem that plagued him in 1998 is now a thing of a past. He said: "I know I've got the talent to do it and it was nice to start afresh here without the back problem. I played pretty solid."
The telephone call from his country’s President touched Els, who said: "I haven't spoken to him for about two years now, and it’s something that is always nice. He really supports South Africa's sports people."
Kaplan never looked like challenging as he turned in 35 with two birdies and two bogeys and then concentrated on making steady pars over the back nine as Webster, Frost, Singh and Leaney all challenged for the runner-up spot that was their only realistic target.
Webster and Singh both finished with rounds of 70 while Leaney - winner of the Moroccan Open and TNT Dutch Open in 1998 - shot a 69. All three, however, were eclipsed by Frost, who fired a best-of-the-day 66 to climb into a four-way tie for third.
Another South African, Nico van Rensburg, had set a scorching pace in the first round with a seven-under-par 65, which left him out in front, two ahead of Els, who complained of feeling ‘a bit rusty’ after his honeymoon break.
However a second round of 69 swept Els into the halfway lead - an advantage he seldom looked like relinquishing during the remainder of the tournament. Kaplan matched Els’ third round 69 on a day in which Australian Peter Lonard made a big move with a 66, but didn’t manage to close the two-stroke gap which had existed at the start of the round.