CAPE TOWN // Ernie Els, once the world's top ranked golfer and winner of three major championships, went out of his way yesterday to express his gratitude for the work the Dubai-based company Leisurecorp has done to reinvigorate the European Tour and propel it towards parity with its American equivalent.
Els, hoping to win his native South African Open for a fifth time over this weekend, was speaking from the clubhouse at Pearl Valley Estates which Leisurecorp acquired last year as a forerunner to making their audacious swoop last May to purchase Turnberry in Scotland, venue for next year's British Open Championship. That means the world's two oldest tournaments will be staged on Leisurecorp premises next year, along with the eagerly-awaited US$10million (DH36.7m) Dubai World Championship - the richest event on the calendar on Greg Norman's Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November.
Els, pointing out that the global financial crisis is beginning to bite into his profession, said: "To have sponsors like them is unbelievable stuff. For those guys to do that for the European Tour and the players is wonderful. "It is good marketing on their behalf, though. They will have Dubai talked about all year and what they have done is tremendous for the players. So it's a win-win situation for all concerned."
He is not the only golfing superstar to respond to the $100m being injected into the European Tour over the next five years by committing himself to playing more on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean. "I will get in my 12 events [needed to secure eligibility to play in the Dubai World Championship] comfortably," Els said. It is no coincidence that the South African Open has attracted its strongest field for many years and Els is delighted by the quality of the opposition and relishing the chance to rip into them.
Els, 39, said: "We South Africans love our sport and we don't want any foreigners coming down here and winning our main tournament - to put it bluntly, I suppose. "It is something special for me to see such a world class field assembled here at this time of the year and having quality players like Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke in action makes our guys pick up their game. That can only make for an outstanding tournament which is wonderful for sport in our country."
Westwood responded: "I went to his new restaurant and he didn't even pick up the tab and now he is saying that about us. That is not very good public relations for him or his restaurant is it?" A grinning Westwood, who also has plans to support Els in a fund-raising event on Monday added: "I would love to win the tournament and take the trophy to his charity tournament to show off to Ernie." Whoever does lift the trophy will hold it until 2010 because the event will launch the second Race to Dubai which will follow a calendar year format in 13 months' time.
That re-scheduling would clash with Els' normal itinerary of starting the year in Hawaii, but he is so impressed with the way Pearl Valley has been revamped and is as keen as ever to fly his country's flag on home soil that he is on the verge of changing his plans. Els is also wondering whether to play two legs of the Desert Swing next month, rather than just competing on one of his favourite courses, the Majlis at Emirates Golf Club, in the Dubai Desert Classic which he has won three times.
"I'm not sure about Qatar yet," said Els. "I'm pretty close to going there but I'm definitely going to Dubai. We players have a great relationship with the people there and for me it's like another home. "I've taken a bit of stick for the Americans for going to Dubai for so many years but when you look now at the influence the Dubai people are having on the world of golf you have to say that they are real players. That tournament is still my baby. That's the one I always love to play in."