A good namesake: Northern Michigan University golfer Caro Els from southern Africa to play Symetra Tour event this week in Upper Peninsula
“I’m nervous and excited. I’m really looking forward to it.” — Caro Els, NMU women’s golfer,
HARRIS — For one simple reason, a member of the women’s golf team at Northern Michigan University may draw extra attention at this week’s Symetra Tour event at Sweetgrass Golf Club.
The golf world knows the name Els, with Ernie Els being one of its highest-profile players with four major championships and 70 victories.
However, Caro Els, who has received exempt status to play in the seventh annual Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass, is not related to Ernie.
“He is not my dad. We have the same surname,” the NMU sophomore golfer said last Tuesday while taking a break on her first golf trip around the course. “I met him once.”
Caro Els shows the same smooth swing and flight path as her namesake but that’s the only thing they really have in common.
The NMU golfer is a native of Swakopmund, Namibia, which is hundreds of miles north of the border with Ernie Els’ home country of South Africa. She attended Pro-Ed Academy before coming to Marquette in January after spending two days stuck in the Detroit airport.
She had dreamed of playing college golf in the United States and was in contact with several coaches, some of whom suggested NMU.
“They (NMU) offered me a pretty good scholarship,” she said.
But upon arriving alone in her new home, she said, “I felt like a child. I saw snow for the first time, I walked in it, I made a snowball. It was the coldest temperature I had ever been exposed to.
“It was two different worlds,” she said, indicating her African home is basically desert terrain despite being on the Atlantic Ocean with temperatures seldom below 60 degrees.
“It is golf weather the whole year at home,” she said with a big smile.
Els, 20, has played golf for 12 years. Her parents, who she has not seen since leaving home, are avid players.
“There are not a lot of opportunities (at home). They did all they could in their power to get me to play the game,” she said.
She was a silver medalist at the 2014 Africa Youth Games and is her country’s top female player. She had a solid first spring at NMU, placing second at the GLIAC tournament with a season-low 74, and 20th at the NCAA East Super Regional. She was NMU’s top finisher at four events and was in the top 20 at all six tournaments.
“She has been awesome, so far,” said NMU coach Bob Bastian, who along with assistant Alex Palmer joined Els at last Tuesday’s practice round. “She has been super positive the whole time. She has done everything we have asked her to do.”
Bastian, who became NMU’s interim head coach last fall and took the permanent head coaching position in the last month, was impressed with how Els played Sweetgrass.
“She really played solid, she hit the ball well,” Bastian said, noting it will be vital for her to “get used to the pace of the greens.”
Inundated by rain in recent weeks, the Sweetgrass greens were slower than normal last Tuesday and Bastian said the speed will definitely increase this week.
“This will be a great opportunity to see some of the best players from in and out of the country and she can see what it will take to get up to that level,” said Bastian, an Upper Peninsula native from Norway. “It is pretty fortunate for her to play in this event.”
Els will be the second NMU player to compete in the Symetra event, joining present Wildcat teammate Avery Rochester of Marquette. Bastian served as Rochester’s caddy two years ago.
“She (Rochester) got a lot out of it. It helped her see what the players are like at the next level,” the NMU coach said.
Els will join former University of Wisconsin golfer Brooke Ferrell as the two exempt players the Island Resort & Casino is allowed. Ferrell, who played at the Island as an amateur last year, will be making her professional Symetra Tour debut this week.
Symetra players began practice rounds Monday, with pro-ams Wednesday and Thursday. The tournament, with 144 players from around the world, begins Friday. The field will be reduced to the low 60 and ties after Saturday’s round, with the final round on Sunday. Play begins each day at 7:30 a.m.
Els, who is studying athletic training at Northern, said she has focused on her chipping and putting during her practice time at Sweetgrass, which will play about 6,200 yards and par-72 during the tournament.
“I’m going to go out there and have fun and try my best,” she said. “I’m excited to play and to be around that (atmosphere). I’m nervous and excited. I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’m not putting too much pressure on myself. I want to enjoy my time here and enjoy the golf. I have no (high) expectations.”
She avoided trouble last Tuesday on her front nine, which was highlighted by a birdie-3 on the 395-yard fifth hole after her approach from the right rough stopped just past the front pin.
Els said the course “fits (the eye) pretty well. I like the way I played the first nine. The big part is the greens. They are pretty consistent. I felt pretty confident.”
Befitting her surname, Els is enthralled with golf and is hoping this tournament will help her take a couple of steps forward.
“I absolutely love golf. It never felt like work,” she said before teeing off on No. 10. “I define it as my happy place.”