American dream dreary for Els

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The Independent Online


reports from St Andrews

Ernie Els faced an agonising dilemma at the end of last season. He spent a long time wondering whether to make a fortune in Europe or an even bigger fortune in America. Finally he opted for the latter but yesterday the South African sounded "homesick''.

His move to join the US Tour has not been an unqualified success but, reading between the lines, it is the lifestyle off the course that has left him disillusioned. "It's a lot different over there," he said. "Over here we have the Torrances (Sam and Bob) and the Boxalls (Richard and Louise) and some real characters. Over there it's a little more serious. You play for a lot of money, week in, week out and the guys take it more seriously.''

This is a coded message for saying the US Tour is a God fearing, teetotalling, mercenary bore of the century. Ernie likes nothing better than a pint and he is clearly suffering from withdrawal symptoms. "I've not had a terribly good year in America," he lamented."The big problem is that you must get used to the golf courses and the American way of life. It's a little different to what I'm used to. I've missed the European tournaments.''

And Europe has missed Els. From the moment he shot a remarkable 61 in the Dubai Desert Classic in January 1994 to his victory in the Johnnie Walker World Championship in December he had the year of his life. In between, of course, he won the US Open, becoming the youngest winner of a major since the 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros won the Open in 1979.

Els wanted to prepare for the Open here by playing in the Irish and Scottish Opens at Mount Juliet and Carnoustie but found it difficult to get dispensation from the US Tour. "I plan to play more tournaments over here. I play my best golf when I'm relaxed. I like to talk to people and have a beer or two. You don't get so many opportunities over there. The guys are out on the practice range. It's a tight schedule over there. Americans seem to stick together. It's not so joyful as Europe.''

Els is buying a house at Lake Nona in Florida and will be a neighbour of another European Tour defector, Nick Faldo, who is also buying property at Lake Nona. "I haven't seen a lot of Nick," Els said. "he goes fishing and works in the gym for a couple of hours. Maybe I should start working out. I've not had a terribly good year in America. It was not as good as I expected.''

Emphasising the ethnic difference between the European Tour and its larger, more lucrative American cousin, Tiger Woods said: "ers are in much better shape now. They eat the right food, keep in shape, do anything to enhance their chances of playing well. They don't go out drinking. Look at Greg. He's 40 and in great shape." The young amateur has, of course, led a sheltered life but surely the generous proportions of a player such as Craig "The Walrus" Stadler has not escaped his attention.

Stadler, incidentally, had a run in with the Fife police when he attempted an unorthodox parking manoeuvre outside the main entrance to the Royal and Ancient clubhouse. He was asked if they had booked him. "They tried," he said. "it was a pain in the arse.''

If Ben Crenshaw was a gambling man he would put his money on Faldo and Corey Pavin. "They are playing well and enjoy this type of course," Crenshaw said, "although they have a different approach. Nick is a little more on the mechanical side and Corey is more intent on shaping his shots. Nick will love retracing his steps. He had a brilliant championship here.''

Crenshaw won the Masters, Pavin the US Open and the Americans are threatening a clean sweep in the majors. "it is really the fellow who acquires the best feel," Crenshaw said. "The ball does not care what country you come from.''

Nick Price, the defending champion, favoured Pavin and Greg Norman. "Greg is my pick," Price said. "He's been hitting the ball so well and his short game is incredible at the moment." Price admitted that winning the Open and exploiting his success has interrupted his progress on the course. "I have not put the time in that I did last year and being involved in things outside golf has taken me away from practice and play. I have not been playing well and not enjoying myself as much. It is knowing how to manage your time but I am now back on track.''

St Andrews has not been a happy hunting ground for Price. "In 1990 I hit the ball from tee to green as well as I was capable of and I putted abysmally. It was desperate. I went back to the house, broke my putter in five pieces and stuck them in the garbage bag. It was four hours after I had finished so you can realise how frustrated I was.''