Ernie Els is back, looking like a potential Major champion again following the woes he has endured on the greens in the past couple of years – deeply frustrating years when the putts simply refused to drop.
He might not have rolled in any exceptionally long ones on Thursday, but a deft touch with the blade was there for all to see at Royal Lytham as he compiled a three-under-par 67 to be on the front page of the leaderboard – three behind leader Adam Scott of Australia on 64 – after round one in the 141st Open Championship.
“I putted well and I hit the ball well,” said the 42-year-old Els who played some sublime shots, a 30-yard bump-and-run up a steep slope with a wedge at the par-4 eighth hole which rolled up onto the green and then found the back of the cup for an unlikely birdie, a 336-yard gamble of a drive which found the green at the risk-and-reward par-4 16th which also led to a three, and an absolutely exquisite high approach with a short-iron at the last which stopped dead a yard from the hole and which he converted into his sixth birdie of the day.
And Els wasn’t the only South African to make a bright start on a grey day as the world’s best golfers once again go on their annual quest to lift the coveted old Claret Jug.
Of the early starters among the record 14 South Africans (15 if we include Brazil-born SA resident Adilson da Silva) in the line-up, Els shot 67, Thomas Aiken 68, Da Silva and Charl Schwartzel 69 and Garth Mulroy 71 which, in his case, wasn't bad going for a first-timer in the Open.
“Obviously the key today was to try and get it into red numbers and I did that. So today was a big day. You don’t want to play yourself out of it. You can’t win it in the first round, but you can get yourself too far behind, so I’m pleased with the round,” said the Big Easy, looking very much at ease with his game and himself.
Working with former SA hockey captain Dr Sherylle Calder, whose speciality is training people to make the most of their vision, has helped Els enormously with his putting.
“Yeah, yeah, it all starts with the putter and I was No 1 in the putting stats in the US Open (he had a chance to win and finished ninth). I’m not so anxious over the putts anymore. And that’s a good sign. I’ve also worked with Claude Harmon (top American coach) and Ricci (Roberts, his knowledgeable caddie) on my ball-striking and made a couple of little changes, and it’s coming out beautiful, touch wood. I’m hitting it really nice. I’ve got a nice feel. And with a little bit of confidence, who knows what might happen this week?”
Els, with a smile, then confessed that he wished he could have put some money on himself here. “We’re not allowed to, of course. But I think I was like 100 to 1 or something. With those kind of odds you’ve got to be crazy not to back a guy playing as well as I did today.”
Els, who turns 43 this year, is chasing his fourth Major and second British Open following his triumph at Muirfield in 2002, and he’s come very close at Royal Lytham before which is clearly a course that suits his eye – especially since his eye, or eyes, are seeing much better these days after working with Dr Calder.
The big South African was asked about playing partner and defending champion Darren Clarke who had a tough day on his way to a 76.
“Darren’s disgusted with himself but I can understand him feeling like that because I’ve been there. He’s hitting the ball beautifully. It’s just a confidence thing. Your confidence is low, you get the wrong bounces. I mean, he had quite a few unlucky bounces today. It’s just a part of the game, and sometimes it’s difficult to get yourself up from there”
Gary Player said before the tournament that the winner this week would have to “putt like Houdini”, just as he did en route to victory here at Lytham in 1974. Els putted well, maybe not like Houdini although the third memebr of their group, Zach Johnson, clearly did. The American, chasing his second straight win following his John Deere victory on the PGA Tour last Sunday, holed everything he looked at it on his way to 65 and a share of second among the earlier starters with Scotland's Paul Lawrie. .
Schwartzel too, had a great day taking just 24 putts and Aiken holed an 80-foot monster for a birdie at the sixth and a 35-footer for another at the 16th. Matching Els on 67 were Tiger Woods, Graeme McDowell and Masters champion Bubba Watson. – The Star