Saturday 25 February 2017

Els raring to go

Ernie Els. Photo: Getty Images
Ernie Els. Photo: Getty Images

A rejuvenated Ernie Els is back in the hunt for a third title in less than two months at the Ballantine's Championship, but the WGC-CA Championship winner faces stiff competition from an equally in-form field at Pinx Golf Club this week.

After enduring a first winless season since 1990 last year, Els cut his travel at the start of the year, missing the start of the European season in the Middle East, but quickly reaped the rewards by returning to the winners circle at Doral before posting a second straight win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.



The 40-year-old did cite fatigue for a disappointing outing at the Shell Houston Open the week before the Masters, which contributed to jaded 18th at Augusta.



But after a week off in which the world number seven did not touch a club until he arrived on Jeju island, the South African is confident of building on last year's fourth-place, finish despite the presence of last week's Volvo China Open winner and Jeju-born YE Yang and Shell Houston Open winner Anthony Kim.



"I've had a pretty good start to the season. The win in Miami was big for me as it got a lot of confidence back and then obviously Bay Hill was a run on from that," said Els.



"But maybe I played a bit too much golf, maybe I should have taken the week off before the Masters."



Last year Els provided an ominous presence over a windy final day but never really threatened and finished two shots off the pace after missing putts on the final two greens.



"I feel ready to go now and I have a little easier stretch into the US Open," he added.



"My reason for playing so much was to try and get form in March, and it came rapidly."



High winds are expected to disrupt the first round tomorrow, and even with conditions set to improve slightly as the week progresses the wind is set to remain and defending champion Thongchai Jaidee feels players with experience of playing in Europe will again figure prominently after Graeme McDowell triumphed in 2008.



"I learnt a lot by playing on links courses and I'm trying to play with a low ball every time I play," said the Asian number one, who finished eighth last week despite still not being fully recovered from the elbow injury which forced the Thai ace to retire midway through the second round at Augusta.



"That's why if you play with low ball it is very good and you can play this golf course very good even with the wind blowing."



World number 20 Yang, who finished eighth at the Masters, has already ruled out local knowledge playing a part for the PGA Championship winner this week, while 24-year-old world number 10 Kim will look to improve on a sixth-place finish two years ago after finishing third at Augusta.



Yang finished 43rd on his last appearance in 2008, 21 shots adrift, after failing to post a sub-70 round, although the 38-year-old has come along way in two years.



Like Thongchai, McDowell's win, which included a course record eight-under-par 64, also came following a play-off, although the 30-year-old will look to forget last year's disappointing missed cut and build on a second top 10 finish of the year last week in China.



"Some of the great shots I hit a couple of years ago come flooding back and thankfully none of the bad shots I hit last year," he said.



"It's nice to be back, I think the golf course is set up a lot more like it was in 2008 this year compared to last year when it was played later in the year and there was a lot more growth and a lot more rough."



Pinx Golf Club will always hold special memories for the Ulsterman as a first win in four years in 2008 set up his Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla and McDowell is again looking for a timely push up the Ryder Cup points list with the race to Celtic Manor slowly gathering pace.



"I've now got a Ryder Cup under my belt and I'm a more experienced player and there's no doubt I feel like I'm more of a contender for the team this time around than maybe I was in 2008," added McDowell, who also went on to win the Scottish Open in 2008.



"I've left myself a lot to do again this time around, but there's a lot of points to be played for over the next four or five months and this is really the race for the team from now.

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