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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Three-time Omega Dubai Desert Classic champion Ernie Els content with his place in the world of golf

The South African believes the sport is set for a great year as the young players mix it with the older generation.

Ernie Els is a three-time winner of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Andrew Redington / Getty Images
Ernie Els is a three-time winner of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Andrew Redington / Getty Images

Now one of golf’s elder statesmen, Ernie Els recognises that records eventually tumble with time.

The South African, 48, has a few at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. With three victories, no one has won more times around Emirates Golf Club.

In 1994, on his way to his first of the trio, and his first of 28 European Tour wins, Els opened with a course-record 61. Twenty-four years later, it still stands.

“Well, it is 61,” Els said on his return to the tournament on Wednesday. “That's quite low. There's been 62s and 63s, but on that particular day, everything went in. But yeah, it is what it is. Somebody might shoot 59 this week, who knows.”

Els does not seem particularly bothered if someone does. After all, he is a four-time major champion, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and easily one of the most talented players of a generation containing a certain Tiger Woods.

He has one more Dubai title than Woods, since he followed the 1994 triumph with another in 2002, and then again in 2005. Of this week’s field, only Rory McIlroy and Stephen Gallacher can pull alongside Els on three wins. And there wouldn’t be any real regret if they do.

“We don't really look at it that way as players,” he said. “It's nice to be recognised as the guy who has won the most, but it's not going to stand for ever. That's just sentimental stuff to be honest.

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“But I've had great times here and been fortunate enough to win three times. Especially the last one I won against Miguel Angel [Jimenez], when I hit the shot out of the desert and made the putt for eagle, that does not really happen.

“So I've had my great breaks around here and it's time for somebody else to take over the mantle, so to speak.”

That passing of the baton is evidenced by the current competition at the game's summit, played out by a number of guys yet to turn 30. Els may be far from his prime - he last won at the 2013 BMW International Open – but he reckons that, on the whole, 2018 could be a vintage year for the sport.

“I definitely think so,” he said. “From the younger generation, the early 20-somethings, they seem like they are really on their game. The more veteran players like Sergio [Garcia] and obviously Tiger - you can even almost put Rory in there, although he's only 28, he's been around 10 years - these kind of guys are playing great. And then even the older players.

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“So it's an unbelievable mix of talent that's really coming to the top. It could be a banner year for golf around the world. It's going to be very, very exciting. Obviously with Tiger coming back - Rory [too] - if he has a good week, it's really going to put the cat among the pigeons. Could be a great year.”

Woods makes his long-awaited comeback at this week's Farmers Insurance Open. The American tees it up at Torrey Pines on Thursday, returning to an official PGA Tour tournament for the first time in 12 months. He played in last month’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, his first competitive outing since retiring through injury from last year’s Desert Classic.

Even before the Hero, Els guessed Woods was on his way back.

"I saw him at the Presidents Cup and he was down-talking his chances and so on,” he said. “I could feel he's done a lot of work physically. You could feel he's getting ready for something.

"I think, in the back of his mind, he was really getting ready for this year, and physically, feels as strong as ever. I just hope his back holds up because he's hitting it hard again, as you saw in the Bahamas."