Els raring to go for another crack at Scots Open
FRESH from a fortnight’s break, Ernie Els is in confident mood as he prepares for this week’s Scottish Open and the defence of his Open title at Royal St George’s in nine days.
The world No.2, who has not played tournament golf since tying for 11th at last month’s Buick Classic in the United States, has always enjoyed the picturesque Loch Lomond layout, where he triumphed in 2000.
"It’s absolutely beautiful, even more so if the weather turns out to be good," said South African Els, who is always a big favourite north of the border.
"It’s one of the most immaculately prepared golf courses we play, anywhere in the world. It really is that good."
Twice US Open champion Els heads a high-quality field for this week’s European Tour stop at the Bonnie Banks, which starts tomorrow and offers 2.2 million in prize money.
However he will not have fond memories of last year’s event.
In rain-sodden conditions, he fluctuated between scores of 68, 74, 69 and 72 on his way to a share of 50th place. But his game then dovetailed the following week at Muirfield, where he clinched the 131st British Open in a four-way playoff.
"Last year, unfortunately, I played quite poorly here . .. despite opening with a 68," said the 33-year-old Els.
"For the rest of the week my iron play, in particular, was a real struggle - not exactly what you look for in the build-up to an Open. But, as it turned out, it made no difference to how I played at Muirfield the following week.
"Twelve months on my game is in a lot better shape and I hope to put in a strong performance. Having had two weeks off, I’m feeling fresh and raring to go."
Els is one of six former major winners in this week’s field, which is the strongest in Europe this year with the exception of the Open.
The others are 2001 US Open winner Retief Goosen, 1985 Open champion Sandy Lyle, former Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal, 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman, and big-hitting John Daly, who won the 1991 US PGA Championship and the 1995 Open at St Andrews. Fred Couples, the 1992 US Masters champion, has had to withdraw with a back injury. The popular 43-year-old American, was hoping to make his debut at the event in preparation for next week’s Open.
Other Americans in action this week include world No.8 Phil Mickelson, Chad Campbell, Ben Crane, Tim Petrovic, John Rollins, Fred Funk and newly turned professional Ricky Barnes, who shone as an amateur at this year’s US Masters.
Apart from 2000 champion Els, there are six other former Loch Lomond winners in the field - Goosen (2001), Colin Montgomerie (1999), Lee Westwood (1998), Lehman (1997), Thomas Bjorn (1996) and defending champion Eduardo Romero.
Argentina’s Romero became the third oldest winner in European Tour history at Loch Lomond last year, edging out Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson in a play-off.
Romero, then aged 47, clinched the eighth European triumph of his career at the first extra hole, flying a pitching wedge from 120 yards to nine feet before sinking the birdie putt.
Main Scottish hopes lie with the likes of Montgomerie, Alastair Forsyth - fresh from his second place at the Smurfit European Open at the K Club - and Andrew Coltart. King’s Acre pro Andrew Oldcorn heads the Lothians challenge along with Stephen Gallacher, Fraser Mann, Raymond Russell. Dunbar’s David Drysdale joins them.
Apart from this week’s title, there is added incentive at Loch Lomond with Open places on offer for 15 players not otherwise exempt.
American aces in the pack
PHIL MICKELSON: Seventh in 2000 behind Ernie Els, Mickelson, pictured below right - another of the greats yet to win a Major - makes a welcome return to the Bonnie Banks although the 33-year-old’s game is not in the finest of fettle. He has slipped from second to ninth in the world rankings and since finishing third in the US Masters his form in the last six tournaments can only be described as mediocre. For the first time since 1999, the month of July has arrived unaccompanied by a Mickelson win. Feels playing in Britain a week earlier than usual will help him in his bid to win the Open. Only time will tell.
RICKY BARNES: The US Amateur champion is currently one of the hottest properties in golf and underlined his huge potential by finishing 21st in April’s US Masters. Paired with Tiger Woods in the opening two rounds at Augusta, the 22-year-old from California finished seven shots better off than the world No.1 after the first round. Standing at 6ft, 3in and with shoulders - and a smile - as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge, Barnes’ big hitting game should be well suited for Loch Lomond.
JOHN DALY: A loose cannon if ever there was one, big-hitting Daly, pictured below left, could do anything this week. A winner of two Major titles, the US PGA championship in 1991 and the 1995 Open championship, Daly’s career has been one big roller-coaster. Despite his battles with the booze, a fierce gambling habit and regular run-ins with officialdom, the 37-year-old has remained one of the game’s most likeable players. Tied for third in the Scottish Open two years ago.
BEN CRANE: His name may sound more like a hill overlooking Loch Lomond, but the 27-year-old native of Texas is enjoying a fine season. Claimed his maiden PGA Tour victory when he came from six shots behind Lee Janzen to win the Bellsouth Classic in April and has had three top-ten finishes on the circuit this year. The tranquility of the Bonnie Banks should suit the fly-fishing loving, bible-reading star down to a tee.
TOM LEHMAN: A popular winner of the title back in 1997, Lehman has always given a good account of himself in the Scottish Open. The former Open champion has not enjoyed the best of season’s this year with only two top-ten finishes in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the Buick Classic, but Loch Lomond is a happy hunting ground. Secured second behind Ernie Els in 2000 and finished with a flourish to claim a share of sixth place with a final-round 67 last year.
JOHN ROLLINS: Seen by many as a dark horse, the 28-year-old from Richmond, Virginia is expected to mount a serious challenge this week. Claimed his first title of note last year when he won the Bell Canadian Open in a three-man play-off which also included former Open champion Justin Leonard. Suffered play-off heartache recently however when he was pipped for the Buick Classic title in mid-June by Jonathan Kaye at the first extra-hole.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west