Love was all around for Ernie Els after the 46-year-old overcame a rib injury to back up his belief that he can still mix it with golf’s young guns, not just at a happy hunting ground for the South African on the European Tour but also in this season’s majors.
”I just love it here,” he said of the Emirates Golf Club, scene of a hat-trick of victories in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in 1994, 2002 and 2005, after a four-under-par 68 to sit alongside defending champion Rory McIlroy in joint sixth, two shots behind Swedish pacesetter Alexander Noren, following yesterday’s opening round.
“I love the greens now,” added Els, referring to the fact he has overcome a career-threatening bout of putting yips – evident during the Dunhill Links Championship at Carnoustie last October before raising their ugly head again in the South African Open last month. He has switched to a left-below-right putting grip, a change that has breathed new life into the four-time major winner’s game.
A polished effort in the more difficult afternoon conditions on an idyllic desert day – the wind got up just as McIlroy, the world No 2 and title favourite, was finishing off not long after midday – was evidence of that, the South African’s solitary bogey on a fast and fiery Majlis Course coming at his final hole.
“I just love the game,” said Els after being asked what it was that helped him retain his obvious passion and enthusiam to get back into the winner’s circle at a time when the likes of McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler – all players around half his age – are at the top of the world rankings. “I think everybody saw that I went through a very tough spell there last year,” he added, “but I’m starting to rekindle my love for putting again and, with the rest of the game having always kind of been there, I feel like I can still do something.”
Even in the majors? “Yes, I feel I can do that,” he added. “Equipment has kept me very relative in the modern game. Length is not a big issue as I can hit my driver as long as a lot of the young guys.
“My issue was on the greens but I always felt that, if I could get my touch back, I could still compete. That’s what is happening now – I’m starting to feel it on the greens again. That gives you even more of a kick and I feel that I am going to have a good year.”
After picking up birdies at the sixth and eighth in going out in 33, Els made three gains against par in four holes from the 13th to move within a shot of clubhouse leader Noren, who’d negotiated his opening circuit without a blemish on the card. Els might have done likewise if it hadn’t been for the rib injury that forced him to pull out of Wednesday’s pre-event pro-am.
“I just got stuck,” he said of sending his second at the par-5 18th into the water in front of the green and taking a bogey. “I’ve been struggling with this rib injury and, on the longer shots when you have to stay wide, I really find it tough. The rib kind of catches and throws the club inside and that’s what happened there. I only had 250 yards, so I had to go for it. But it wasn’t a good swing and wasn’t a good result.”
Earlier, McIlroy had put his tee shot at the same hole into another patch of water before hitting hitting his third from 198 yards to 12 feet and rolling in the putt for one of his six birdies. Another, at the par-5 12th, was set up by a 4-iron which required a 15-yard cut to get past a tree, while a majestic approach to the sixth ended up hanging on the lip of the hole.
“It wasn’t the best way to start,” said the 26-year-old, a two-time winner here, of his bogey at the par-5 tenth, “and then the bogey I made on the second hole, which is a birdie hole out here, was a bad mistake. But to bounce back and to birdie some of the tougher holes on the course, I was really pleased with that.
“I still feel there’s room for improvement in my putting, but it’s definitely got better. Even since winning this tournament back in 2009, the strides I’ve made in my putting have been great. I feel like I’ve got a consistent routine in practice and that definitely helps on the course.”