The Open: Champion Els wants two more majors

Els and his caddy celebrate as the South African wins the 2002 Open at Muirfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Els and his caddy celebrate as the South African wins the 2002 Open at Muirfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ERNIE Els reckons he’s still got two more majors left in the tank before disappearing into the sunset to become a hotdog seller at one of South Africa’s most popular surfing locations.

While maybe not in Frank Sinatra’s league, the 43-year-old has staged a series of comebacks in his career, the latest landing him a second Claret Jug at Royal Lytham 12 months ago.

The fourth major victory of his career, it has given Els the chance to return to Muirfield, where he won his first Open Championship in 2002, as the title-holder and he’s still hungry for more success.

“I have been around a while, having turned pro just after I was in the air force back in 1989 when I was 20,” said Els, who won the BMW International Open in Munich three weeks ago to claim his 28th European Tour title and 70th worldwide.

“I’m probably on the third stage of my career but who cares? There are going to be some great stories written in sport in the future and I really believe that I have a couple of majors left in me. I have got everything sorted business-wise, so I can concentrate on playing golf. I have nothing stopping me.

“People might laugh about Gary Player, at 62, saying he believed that he could still win an Open Championship. But, if you believe in something, only you know what you can do. Darren Clarke believed that he could win [The Open at the age of 42], as I did. It is sport and anything can happen.”

Even more so in golf, he said. “That is what makes golf so great,” added Els. “We are the only sport where you can compete as a 40-something and, at times, beat 20-somethings. It’s a wonderful sport that we play.

“If it wasn’t for golf, I would be selling hotdogs on the beach. But I have golf and I can compete and win. I’m looking forward to the future then, maybe at 55, I will go and sell some hotdogs at Herolds Bay.”

The smell of them being cooked in the catering areas around the course is likely to be the closest Els will come to one at Muirfield, where he is returning with a game that is in better shape than it was 11 years ago.

“2002 was a funny one because I played good golf at the start of the year and then my game kind of left me,” he recalled of the events that preceded him winning a play-off that also included Australian duo Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby, as well as Frenchman Thomas Levet.

“[Former coach] David Leadbetter and myself worked our behinds off to get my swing back in shape. At the last minute, on the Wednesday, I found something in my swing with Lead and I went with it. So it was kind of fortunate. This time, while you are only as good as your last win, Munich has given me a bit of confidence and Muirfield is a wonderful venue where I’ve done well in the past. I have just got to do my own work, get my game sharp and go from there. Whether you are the favourite or not doesn’t mean a thing. I think we have proved that. Sport is funny and anybody can win. I am just trying to get myself sharp and ready to go.”

In addition to using this week’s Scottish Open for that purpose, Els has paid at least two separate visits to Muirfield in the past fortnight or so to reacquaint himself with the course and also test out changes that have been made by Martin Hawtree as part of the R&A’s toughening up of the layouts on the Open rota. “This course will frighten the guys, especially when you get on the first tee because, although there is a strip of fairway down there somewhere, you don’t see much else other than the rough,” he said. “But it is very fair. They have lengthened some of the holes, including the ninth, which is a great par-5 now, as you’ve really got to thread your drive down there where the out of bounds comes in to play.

“With 30 yards having been added to it, the 17th is also a hell of a par-5 now but, with the technology available these days, everything is fair and the guys will have a great time.”

While the last two players to get their hands on the Claret Jug – Clarke then Els – had both played in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart the week before, a more significant pointer on this occasion may well be the choice of accommodation.

“I think Nick Faldo stayed at Greywalls in 1987 and 1992 while I stayed there in 2002,” revealed Els. “And, though I’ve also got a room booked in The Renaissance Club, I might have to stay at Greywalls again.”

‘These are four of the best par-3s you’ll see on linksland’

AS BOTH a competitor and course designer, Ernie Els has either played or studied thousands of par-3s around the world. He’d probably be struggling to pick out one single hole above all the others. That’s easy, though, when it comes to a collection of short holes on the one course.

“These are four of the best par-3s you’ll see on linksland,” said the South African of the fourth (226 yards), seventh (184 yards), 13th (190 yards) and 16th (186 yards) at Muirfield. “They are not the longest par-3s, but the bunkering on these holes is just unbelievable.”

They demand shot-making at its best, he said. “Depending on the wind, it’s anything from a 4-iron to an 8-iron on these holes, but it is something that you want to copy if you are a designer,” added the two-times Open champion. “Some of them are draw holes because of the way the green is angled and some you have to fade the ball in.”

A shot Els produced from under the face in a greenside bunker at the 13th in the final round helped Els claim the Claret Jug in 2002 – the last time Muirfield staged The Open. It was also the European Tour Shot of the Year.

“It was a Ronnie Biggs-escape,” he said, referring to one of the ‘Great Train Robbers’. Els will be happy if he’s never in it again, but he revealed: “I tried to copy that bunker with one of our designs in the Bahamas.”