By Mark Lamport-Stokes
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Three-times major winner and former world number one Ernie Els has been voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2011.
The 40-year-old, whose selection in the Hall of Fame's PGA Tour category was announced on Wednesday, will be inducted on May 9 at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida.
"It was quite a surprise," South African Els told reporters with a broad smile at East Lake Golf Club. "I thought you had to be a little bit more senior.
"You'd like to think you could have done more and can still do more, but obviously I'm very, very honored to be inducted."
Popularly known as the 'Big Easy' because of his imposing physique and laidback demeanor, Els earned Hall of Fame selection in the first year he was on the PGA Tour ballot.
"Obviously this makes the year, it makes you feel very good about what you've done," said the 18-times PGA Tour champion.
"I've had a lot of achievements and I've won a lot of golf tournaments, especially worldwide. So for a boy from South Africa, that's kind of nice."
Els has won more than 60 professional tournaments worldwide, including the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and the 2002 British Open at Muirfield.
He has triumphed twice on the 2010 PGA Tour and qualified for the elite 30-strong field competing for this week's Tour Championship at East Lake.
His selection for the Hall of Fame was applauded by fellow South African Gary Player, a nine-times major winner who is also a member of the elite group.
"Ernie certainly deserves this recognition, as he epitomizes a 'world' golfer," Player said in a statement. "He is a credit to the game and an ambassador for the sport.
Els joins American Doug Ford, the late Jock Hutchison and former President George H.W. Bush in the Hall of Fame's class of 2011.
"It took a little while, but I think it's great they're doing this while I'm still alive," said 19-times PGA Tour champion Ford. "It is an honor of which I am deeply proud."
President Bush was selected in the lifetime achievement category, having helped raise golf's profile during and after his presidential administration.
In 1996, he served as honorary chairman of the Ryder Cup-style Presidents Cup and he has since attended every edition of the biennial team competition.
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)