x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Els: Swig sweetest from Claret Jug

On the fairways of world golf, Ernie Els is affectionately known as the Big Easy for the tempo of his swing, his uncomplicated technique and his laid-back approach to life.

Bolden may have played trumpet in a jazz club of the same name 100 years ago but it was 1970s newspaper columnist Betty Guillaud who first dubbed New Orleans the 'Big Easy'. "If New York is the Big Apple," Ms Guillaud wrote, "then New Orleans is the Big Easy, where everything is slower, simpler and easy-going." On the fairways of world golf, Ernie Els is affectionately known as the Big Easy for the tempo of his swing, his uncomplicated technique and his laid-back approach to life; he is also modest, courteous, gracious in victory and dignified in defeat. The man is impossible to dislike as Ryder Cup hopeful Nick Dougherty said: "I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him. What could you have against him? That he walks too slowly? He's got it sussed."

In any other era, Els might also have been the dominant force in the game. This being the age of the Tiger, however, he will never now fulfil the prophecy offered by Curtis Strange after the first of the South African's two US Open victories in 1994 when he emulated Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Jerry Pate and Seve Ballesteros by becoming only the fifth player since the Second World War to win a major before his 25th birthday. "I think," said Strange in wonderment, "I just played with the next god."

Strange was not to know that golf's Zeus, the supreme ruler of all the gods, was about to materialise in the form of Tiger Woods, but with the Great One temporarily indisposed, Els arrives at Royal Birkdale as the man to beat in the 137th Open. Born in Germiston on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Els' millionaire father, Neels, could indulge his young son's every sporting whim, including a tennis court and swimming pool in the back garden. He might have played for South Africa at rugby or cricket (which he still pronounces 'creekit') until he returned home from a school rugby match with a broken finger and his mother, Hettie, decreed that golf represented a far safer career. The following year he beat Phil Mickelson in a play-off to win the 13-14 age group of the Junior World Golf Championship in San Diego, persuading Neels to dig up the family tennis court and replace it with a putting green.

Although he now trails Woods by 14-3 in major titles, Els relishes the rivalry. "If I'm playing well and my confidence is flowing, then I know I can beat Tiger. Obviously, he thinks the same. I think golf is in my blood. I believe some people are born to be golfers. Tiger Woods was born with that talent and his parents started working on it from the time he could walk. I played all sports but I had a desire, deep down inside me, to play golf. It's hard to know exactly what you want to do when you're a little boy playing all sports but I think, like Tiger, I also had that special talent for golf."

Although the world No 6 has won 59 tournaments around the world, no trophy means as much as the Claret Jug. "It's the hardest tournament to win. It just means so much, whether you are born in Troon like Colin Montgomerie, in Germany like Bernhard Langer or in Germiston, like me. "Whenever I stood over a six-foot putt as a kid, it was always the Claret Jug that was the prize because I'd grown up reading about Gary Player and the Open. When I won in 2002, I took that trophy everywhere with me."

The motto of New Orleans is Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler; whether he wins his second Open championship on the links of Southport this week or (far more unlikely) misses the cut, the other Big Easy will round up wife Liezl and children Samantha and Ben, then head off to his Els Club in Dubai, thinking exactly the same thing: "C'mon baby, let the good times roll..." @Email:sports@thenational.ae