Ernie Els’ nephew Jovan Rebula makes a name for himself at Auburn

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Ernie Els’ nephew Jovan Rebula makes a name for himself at Auburn

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Ernie Els’ nephew Jovan Rebula makes a name for himself at Auburn

Last January, Jovan Rebula teed it up in his first European Tour event, the BMW SA Open in Rebula’s native South Africa. As he made the turn during his second round, the then-19-year-old amateur looked into the crowd and saw a few familiar faces.

Among them was Ernie Els, one of South Africa’s most decorated golfers, a four-time major champion and Hall of Famer – or as Rebula knows him, Uncle Ernie.

“I’ll never forget that image of him, my mother (Carina Rebula, Ernie’s sister) and my grandfather (Neels Els) standing in the crowd and watching on,” Rebula said. “He was playing in the afternoon wave, but he watched two holes and then went back to tee off. That just tells you what kind of a guy he is.”

Through the years Els has always had time for his nephew, now a 20-year-old sophomore at Auburn University and No. 157 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.

When Els and Rebula are together, it’s usually on a golf course. Els loves the time he’s spent with Rebula at Oubaai Golf Club, a course Els designed in Herolds Bay, near Rebula’s hometown of George along the southern coast of South Africa.

“It is a chance for us to enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed atmosphere, and I can offer advice on his swing and his all-around game,” Els said. “It gets pretty competitive, too.”

Like the time Els and Rebula had an impromptu putting contest on the 17th hole – 25-foot putt, loser does pushups. After Rebula won, Els dropped to the ground.

“But then I decided, well, I’ll just do it with him,” Rebula said. “So both of us were down on the ground doing pushups off the green together. … It’s a moment that I’ll embrace forever.”

When Els and Rebula aren’t together, they often talk on the phone, sometimes for hours. A few years ago Rebula had his eyes on pro golf. After all, he was South Africa’s top-ranked amateur and had golf success in his blood.

But Els reminded Rebula that he needed something to fall back on if his golf career didn’t pan out. He recommended Rebula look into attending college in the U.S.

“There are no guarantees of success in this game, so getting a great education is very important,” Els explained to Rebula. “And if you can do that and also get four years of experience of playing top-flight golf competing against other top amateurs, well, that’s just such a wonderful opportunity.”

Said Rebula: “I was very lucky to end up in Auburn. I think it’s a perfect spot for me, for my personality, for my golf game. … It was a risk-or-reward situation and I think I definitely got rewarded.”

Ernie Els, his father Neels Els and his sister Carina Rebula watch his nephew Jovan Rebula on the first hole during the second round of the 2017 BMW South African Open. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

Rebula was a late signing for Tigers coach Nick Clinard, inking his national letter of intent in May 2016. Rebula competed in his first event for Auburn less than four months later, and finished his freshman season with three top-10s in 12 starts while leading the team with a T-23 finish at the NCAA Championship.

Now a sophomore, Rebula leads the 10th-ranked Tigers with a 70.67 scoring average through the fall and is ranked 45th individually in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings.

“He’s a 30-year-old trapped in a 19-year-old’s body in that he’s really strong mentally,” Clinard said. “When he doesn’t have his best stuff physically, he’s able to plod his way and think his way around the golf course.”

Kind of like his uncle. Rebula shares a lot of similarities with Els. They each tower over most of their competition at 6-foot-3, and their self-taught golf swings are both pleasing to the eye. Rebula doesn’t have as cool of a nickname as “The Big Easy,” but around Auburn people call him “Big Jo.”

Rebula appreciates the comparisons, but in his eyes he has a lot of work to do to be like Uncle Ernie.

“My uncle being such a famous guy – and he knows it, too – but still always to be able to make time for me and do these small kinds of things, it really means a lot to me,” Rebula said. “I’m very appreciative for what he’s done in my life and I respect him with everything that I have. And I always try to be a good ambassador for him.”

As Els sees it, Rebula is passing the test.

“The physical skills are there to see; I mean, he’s really got a lot of game,” Els said. “But it’s his commitment to want to learn and improve all the time that is most impressive to me. He’s a real hard worker. As a person, he is also very humble, and his dedication to his family and friends is wonderful to see.”

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