x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ernie Els full of confidence again ahead of Abu Dhabi Championship debut

The British Open winner will make his competitive debut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week on the back of a career upswing, writes Steve Elling.

Ernie Els in action at the Volvo Champions in Durban.
Ernie Els in action at the Volvo Champions in Durban.

It was a crystalline Ernie Els moment, largely because it had absolutely nothing to do with golf shots, per se. This was Els, nonpareil.

A matter of minutes after he had absconded with the British Open title last July, despite starting the day six shots off the lead, Els carefully set down the claret jug on a nearby table and grabbed a microphone. Fans surrounding the 18th green at Royal Lytham, having given the popular champion a rousing ovation, went all but quiet.

Wait for it, wait for it. The playful Els, now 43, had 'em right where he wanted 'em.

"I had a lot of support this week, but you guys need to ask yourselves a question," he said, a smile creasing his face as thousands listed. "Were you just being nice to me, or did you actually believe I could win?"

It was a fair point, given his travails of the spring. As Els grinned, the grandstands erupted in what ranked as one of the most unscripted, entertaining, feel-good moments of the 2012 season.

It was laughable to think he had a chance down the stretch, truth be told. Yet almost before anybody could comprehend it, Adam Scott blew a four-shot lead with as many holes to play, Els raked in a 15-footer for a birdie on the 72nd hole, and the next thing anybody knew, the Big Easy was hoisting his fourth major-championship trophy, becoming only the sixth man to win two US and British open titles.

As with his celebratory speech, he had ad-libbed his way around the course with entertaining results, befitting one of the most popular players of the past two decades. Few saw it coming. It had been 10 years since Els had last won a major, though he had certainly had some chances along the way, most recently at Pebble Beach and Olympic Club, to name two.

While his occasionally cringe-inducing fight to find his putting stroke had caused some to avert their eyes, Els nonetheless said something in his gut told him that he had a chance. Fans might have lost faith, but Els said nobody should infer from his spontaneous comment that he had given up the ghost. He has finished in the top three in two previous Open iterations at Lytham, so he knew the lay of the land, for certain.

"I've been asked this a lot over the last six months and I can honestly say that, yes, I had gotten my self-belief back," Els said. "I had a sniff of a win in the US Open and then you come to the [British] Open, the favourite tournament of the year for me and on a golf course that I've always played well on, then obviously you've got to like your chances. Right from the start, I thought I'd have a strong week."

As the season unfolded, few would have guessed that Els had another major in his tank. Having fallen out of the top 50 in the world, he played non-stop in the United States during the spring, trying to boost his world ranking to earn a Masters bid, but it did not happen.

Most painfully, he missed a pair of short putts over the closing holes at the US PGA Tour event in Tampa, blowing both the lead and an automatic invitation to Augusta National.

He missed the Masters for the first time in nearly two decades. Whether sitting out Augusta at age 42 instilled a sense of major-championship urgency, well, that is a theory that has certainly been broached.

"Thanks for reminding me of my age," Els cracked. "No, seriously, I'm not sure it was like that. Obviously, I wasn't happy about missing the Masters, but I was working my butt off for myself, trying to get my game back to where I wanted it to be.

"I wanted to feel like I could win again. That's what I missed more than anything."

Already finished, Els was parked on the putting green at Lytham as Scott, a longtime friend and Presidents Cup mate, made a mess of the closing holes. A few years earlier, Els was caught on camera in a comparable situation at the Masters, as Phil Mickelson holed a putt on the 18th in 2004 to beat him. This time, Scott missed, delivering the claret jug to Els.

Els seemed rather subdued.

"Exactly, I have seen both sides of that coin," Els said, recalling the tension of the moment. "I don't know, there are a lot of different emotions at times like that. Scotty is a great buddy of mine and you obviously don't wish any bad luck on him. I was just trying to keep myself calm - you know, hit a few putts and get myself mentally ready if there's a play-off."

The impact of Els' win can be measured many ways - even once or twice removed from the name inscribed on the trophy. Els became the third player in a five-major span to win while using a belly putter and before the year had ended, rule makers at the USGA and R&A announced that the anchoring of any putter to the body would be banned starting in 2016.

An argument has raged over whether it is the proper call.

"I think a lot of guys can't make up their mind, to be honest," Els said. "I've had a chance to discuss it with [R&A executive] Peter Dawson, and while I am not altogether in favour of the proposed ruling, I fully respect the decision."

With the victory, Els secured a five-year exemption into the majors and re-established himself as a drawing card. Once again, his services are in demand as global events look for marquee names to attract fans. More than once over the years, Els has admitted that he has sometimes chased too many appearance-fee dollars to far-flung places, sometimes to his detriment.

But the fuel tank on his jet isn't going to fill itself.

"I've learnt over the years what's right for me and what's not," he said. "Of course, you want to make the most of your commercial opportunities as Open champion - anyone who says otherwise is lying - but I won't make the mistake of spreading myself too thin, as you say.

"It's a long season, there are a lot of great tournaments to play for, and I want to be 100 per cent ready for all of them."

After playing his 2013 opener last week in South Africa, Els makes make his first career appearance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Thursday. He has played in the UAE myriad times, winning thrice up the road in Dubai, and not surprisingly, is a tremendous gallery puller.

Having seen Els work his crowd magic with a microphone in hand at Lytham, it surprising the man has not been installed as the host of an event on the European, PGA or South African tour. Not that it hasn't been discussed. A few years ago, his sports agency had discussions with the former Bob Hope event about possibly becoming the namesake, but it never materialised.

"Funnily enough, I was speaking to the guys at IMG about this only recently," he said of his management firm. "Who knows? Just got to get all the pieces of the jigsaw to fit into place - great golf course, good sponsor, right time.

"It's obviously not going to be straightforward, but yeah, I like to think it might happen one day."

He would be a natural.



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