Abu Dhabi: British Open champion Ernie Els is “excited” about making his debut at next week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and is approaching it with confidence given his fine record in the Middle East.
The four-time major winner claimed his first European Tour title in the region, the Dubai Desert Classic in 1994, the first of three successes at the tournament.
He also emerged victorious at the 2005 Qatar Masters and is now eager to add the Abu Dhabi title to his Middle Eastern trophy haul.
Els confirmed his participation at the capital event last month, and will be contesting the Falcon trophy alongside leading players such as world No 1 Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Jason Dufner.
Of his appearance at the tournament, which takes place between January 17 and 20, the South African said: “It feels like a good way to start my 2013 schedule. I have been playing in the Middle East for 20 years now and I won my first ever European Tour title there. I have a lot of fond memories from my time in this part of the world and made a lot of friends, too. This is my first appearance in Abu Dhabi and I’m excited about it. It would be great to add this title to my Middle East collection.”
Els has been recharging his batteries in South Africa following a year in which he recaptured former glories by winning the British Open in stunning fashion at Royal Lytham and St Annes.
He took advantage of a final-round collapse from leader Adam Scott and overhauled a six-shot deficit to beat the Australian into second place.
It was a timely return to form for Els, whose struggles led to him slipping out of the world’s top 50 for the first time since 1993 in 2011.
Els feels his game is “in good shape” as he enters 2013, having ended the year exhausted from a busy schedule following his Open win.
He added: “I felt like I ran out of steam a little bit towards the end of 2012. I never really had the break that I needed after winning the Open. Not that I’m complaining; it was a wonderful time. But it was nice to recharge the batteries back in South Africa and then come back fresh again in January.”
At the age of 43, the man known as “The Big Easy” due to his laidback demeanour and languid swing, may be approaching the twilight of his career, but he insists he has not lost his hunger for success.
He says adding to his four major trophies remains his “main focus”.
He said: “I’m guaranteed a spot in all four majors for the next five years, so that’s a lot of opportunities, and we have some great venues coming up. I like to think I can still add to my major tally. That’s my main focus.”
As a young player, Els said he never had a target in mind in terms of major wins.
“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to win the career Grand Slam, just like my boyhood hero Gary Player did,” he said. “To be honest, just to have emulated something of what he achieved is a big deal for me. It’s been a long journey and a great ride, but hopefully I’m not done yet. I feel like I have some more wins in me yet.”
The affable South African says not much has changed in his game from his glory days of winning back-to-back European Tour money-list titles in 2003 and 2004.
He said: “Tee to green, not much has changed. I swing it pretty good still and I’ve kept myself in decent shape physically. Obviously there was a tough 18 months on the greens. I was switching putters maybe a bit too often, but we eventually converted to the belly putter, and once we got that figured out it made a difference. You start making more of those six, seven footers and you believe you can win again.”
In the last decade, several South African players have risen to international prominence to emulate the feats of Els and Gary Player before him.
Els doesn’t want to take all the credit for inspiring the likes of Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace, though.
He said: “It [the South African success in golf] is due to a lot of things. We have some great junior golf programmes in South Africa, which is a big factor. Obviously the weather is great, and yeah, we all need heroes to inspire us. I had Gary Player. Then Retief Goosen and myself, we played our part. Young kids now will be looking at guys like Louis [Oosthuizen], Charl [Schwartzel] and Branden [Grace] and wanting to be just like them.”