Golf: Norman praises conquering Els: South Africa's rising maestro is presenting a major challenge to the established order

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The Independent Online
GREG NORMAN saw enough of Ernie Els in close combat on Sunday to convince him that the 24- year-old South African has what it takes to become a major player. There are not that many apparent heirs to the kingdom inhabited by players of the stature of Norman but Els, 6ft 3in, 15st and as strong as an ox, is clearly of that ilk.

His emphatic victory in the Desert Classic on the Emirates course was his first success on the European Tour and he is already making plans for a major assault on the US circuit. 'I was impressed by him,' Norman said. 'I think he'll do extremely well in America.

'To get to the next plateau depends on the individual. I've seen players who have backpedalled when they have had the chance to go on to greater things. If Ernie has got it in his heart he could be a major winner. He's good enough to do it.'

What is not in doubt is that Els is a natural. Had he not decided to become a professional golfer after winning the South African Amateur Championship at the age of 16 he could probably have earned a living as a tennis player. At the Afrikaans High School in Johannesburg he was also a useful fly-half.

Els, given strong encouragement and support by his father who runs a trucking business in Johannesburg, has won everything there is to win in South Africa and his first victory outside his native country came in the Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Japan last November. He has waited 18 months for his first win on the European Tour and the only surprise is that it has taken him that long.

In the major championships he has featured on the leaderboard. He was joint fifth in the Open in 1992 and joint sixth in the Open won by Norman at Royal St George's last summer. In the US Open last June he was tied seventh. At Sandwich he became the first player, beating Norman by a matter of an hour or so, to break 70 in all four rounds of an Open Championship. Already a millionaire, this year he will be shooting for the stars.

His two main sponsors are companies based in the United States and that is where Els is destined to play most of his golf. He missed the cut at the US Tour qualifying school in 1990 but will play in 10 tournaments in America this summer, 17 in Europe.

Next year it will be the other way round. While the European Tour has been kind to him he is, nevertheless, using it as a stepping stone. 'The thing about Europe is that you have to adapt and change your game all the time,' Els said. 'The other thing is I don't like the weather.'

He can have no complaints on that score in Dubai, where conditions were perfect, or for that matter his next assignment, the Johnnie Walker Classic at the Blue Canyon Country Club on this tropical island in Thailand. The field includes Norman, who flew here in his private jet, Gulfstream 3, and he will be joined here by the world No 1, Nick Faldo.

Els, who won the Desert Classic from Norman by six strokes, received a cheque for pounds 75,000 and earned another pounds 3,000 for establishing a course record, a phenomenal 61 in the first round that gave him a lead he never relinquished. His aggregate of 268, 20 under par, was another record, beating Seve Ballesteros's 1992 mark by four strokes.

What made Els's performance even more extraordinary is that he had very little confidence in his driver and was often in trouble off the tee. He began by pushing his drives and in an attempt to rectify that ended up hooking them. 'I was too narrow on the backswing,' he said. 'I was looking for a way of reducing the margin of error.'

Norman had a piece of advice for him. 'He shouldn't change anything,' the Australian said. 'If he tries to shorten his swing he'll end up in a lot of trouble. He's so tall he's got to make a proper shoulder turn. He has a beautiful rhythm in his swing.'

(Photograph omitted)