Paul Lawrie targets return to the top

Ernie Els watches a shot during practice for the South Africa Open yesterday. Picture: Getty

Ernie Els watches a shot during practice for the South Africa Open yesterday. Picture: Getty

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IF YOU follow Paul Lawrie on Twitter, you will know he was hooked on the darts – Catriona Matthew, too, incidentally – over the festive period. More importantly, you will also be aware of how much work the Aberdonian has put in as he bids to hit the golfing equivalent of double top or bullseye again.

Considering he was helping Europe pull off their “Miracle at Medinah” in the Ryder Cup just over two years ago, having recorded an eighth European Tour title triumph in the final counting event for that encounter, it is incredible to think that Lawrie has slipped to 323rd in the world rankings.

Having finished 117th last year in the Race to Dubai – his best performance in 16 outings was joint-11th in the Qatar Masters in January – he would have been paying a visit to the Qualifying School if it had not been for the fact he is among the top 40 on the Tour’s career money-list.

His disappointing season – Lawrie’s worst in a decade – coincided with neck trouble early in the year, then, in August, a back injury forced him to pull out of the Made in Denmark event won by compatriot Marc Warren without managing to hit a ball in anger in Aalborg. In short, it was a season to forget, one that ended prematurely without Lawrie even having a sniff of making the Final Series.

Don’t dare start writing him off just yet, though. Having resuscitated his career once before – he bridged a 13-year gap to make a Ryder Cup return in Chicago – Lawrie has been straining sinews he probably didn’t know existed over the past three months to give himself a chance of repeating that feat.

Day after day, he has hit balls at the splendid golf centre that bears his name on the outskirts of Aberdeen. Five wins in six North-East Alliance starts, including a 63 and 64 both at Buckpool, provided welcome encouragement.

So, too, did the 67 and 70 recorded on a composite course at Pestana Vila Sol in Portugal as the host finished seven shots ahead of a ten-strong group of Scottish professionals on a trip funded by his foundation.

No sooner had he returned from that, Lawrie was off on his travels again, this time heading to Dubai with caddie Davy Kenny, practising and playing at either Jumeirah Golf Estates or Emirates Golf Club. He then moved on to Abu Dhabi, where a holiday over Christmas and New Year included a daily nine holes with his two sons, Craig and Michael at Saadiyat Beach.

It has all been geared towards the start of Lawrie’s 2015 campaign, which gets under way today when the recently-turned 46-year-old partners two of the home favourites, Charl Schwartzel and Richard Sterne, in the opening round of the South African Open at Glendower Golf Club in Ekurhuleni.

“I’m really looking forward to getting my new season started,” said the 1999 Open champion of a month-long trip that will also include the three events on the well-established Middle East Swing. “Since the Portugal Masters [his last European Tour appearance in mid-October], I have hit a lot of balls working on trying to get my swing a bit longer and slower as it was getting a little short and quick.”

Referring to his late coach, he added: “Adam [Hunter] always said I hit it my best when my change-over was a little slower, which gives me more time. I have played a lot of golf with some Alliance events, as well as our Portugal trip, playing with Davy in Dubai and our holiday in Abu Dhabi.

“I’m not big on goal-setting, but I’m swinging and hitting it really nicely, so I think good things could happen if I stay healthy, which has been a problem lately. There was only one day on holiday where I couldn’t play, so fingers crossed that holds out.”

Joining Lawrie in the first event of 2015, though the schedule actually started with two other South African events, the Nedbank Challenge and Alfred Dunhill Championship, last month, are four other Scots – Chris Doak, David Drysdale, Scott Henry and Doug McGuigan.

Sixth behind Branden Grace in the second of those tournaments at Leopard Creek, Drysdale spent Christmas in the Kruger National Park before bringing in the New Year in Stellenbosch. “South Africa has become a second home for me over the past decade or so and I love it down here,” said the Cockburnspath man. “Fillet steaks, red wine, great weather and great golf courses – what more can you ask for?”

One man who would echo that sentiment is Ernie Els, who, in addition to trying to win the game’s second oldest national Open for a sixth time, is also playing the role of tournament host and ambassador this week in an event being staged in his native city.

“I’ve always taken the South African Open as like a fifth major for me, so to be involved in a capacity where I can host and be an ambassador, thus giving something back to the tournament, is just a phenomenal gift that was given to me,” said the two-times Open champion.

As well as Els, Schwartzel, Sterne and Grace, a strong home contingent includes former winners Retief Goosen, James Kingston and Hennie Otto.

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