JOHANNESBURG – Four-time major-winner Ernie Els turned back the clock with a level-par 72 in the opening round of the Masters at Augusta on Thursday.

The Big Easy finds himself in a share of 12th, seven-shots behind American Charley Hoffman who was a class apart in round one with a seven-under 65 to lead by four in biting cold and windy conditions.

Els went out in three-over, but rallied with four birdies and just one bogey coming home to sign for a satisfying effort to begin his campaign.

Els leads the way among the South Africans in the field, with Charl Schwartzel compiling a two-over 74 for 26th place, Branden Grace settling for 76 and a share of 54th, Louis Oosthuizen in 66th after a 77 and Trevor Immelman near the back of the field in 86th after shooting a 79.

The 47-year-old former world number one Els has seen his world ranking slip to 410th, and could well be playing in his last Masters off the five-year exemption he received for winning the 2012 Open Championship.

There is hope for Els, however, as the top-12 players and ties receive an invite to the tournament the following year.

Maintaining his place near the top of the leaderboard, though, could prove difficult with the quality field assembled.

“Obviously I’ll take a 72 today in these conditions,” said Els who in 2016 six-putted the first green in round one which led to an opening 80 and a missed cut.

“And after what happened last year, it was quite different. I was hoping for an easier day. I played good golf on the back nine and you’ve got to keep doing what you are doing.

“We are going to be absolutely exhausted by the end of the week if this weather keeps up. This is some of the toughest conditions I’ve ever played in. We’ll see how it goes.”

With windy and rainy conditions dominating the buildup and much of day one, the experience of Els in difficult weather came in handy.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a links specialist, but I like to play linksy golf.

“You had to play some of those shots today. The greens were quite receptive because of the rain, so you can play a low shot in there. Normally Augusta National doesn’t receive that low shot; today it did. And I just kept doing that. I hit my driver in the fairway a lot of times and played solid on the back nine.’’