Golf: Passionate Els targets Tiger

New World Matchplay Championship holds no fears for South African who thrives on head-to-head battles
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FOR A man who commands presidential attention for doing something as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things as winning a golf tournament, Ernie Els appreciates the simple things in life. After his wedding to his long-time girlfriend, Liezl, on 31 December, the honeymoon was far from the luxurious affair you might expect of a top sporting celebrity.

"We were roughing it," Els said of his trip to the rugged western coast of South Africa. "There was no electricity. We used gas lamps and candles and slept under canvas. Water for the toilet was brought from the sea. We are so spoilt, spending our time in five-star hotels. I didn't shave for days. It was great."

Getting back to nature did Els no harm at all. He won his first tournament of the year, the South African PGA, and was immediately handed a mobile phone. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to President Nelson Mandela. "I just listened," Els said. "What do you say to a great man like that?"

Not much ruffles the 29-year-old from Johannesburg, except perhaps South Africa's defeat by England at Twickenham last December. A few days later he was still smarting. "Don't even mention it," he said before the subject could be raised.

Sport, Liezl excepted, is the love of Els' life. He played rugby and cricket at school and follows his national team's fortunes with a passion. He played tennis for his province and could have turned professional but, at the age of 14, chose golf instead. The decision has brought him riches galore, but finance figures lowly in his priorities. "I follow sport first and the stock market second," he said.

In addition to his homes in Johannesburg, George, on the Cape coast, and Lake Nona in Florida, Els has just bought a house at Wentworth. Part of the attraction was being able to catch the odd Test match or a day at Wimbledon and it will be his base in October during the Rugby World Cup.

Wentworth was also the scene of his three World Match Play titles. There is something about the simplicity of that form of the game that suits the South African and which makes him one of the favourites for the inaugural Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship, which starts tomorrow at La Costa in Carlsbad, California.

Apart from Wentworth's annual invitational event, it is high time that there was a proper matchplay event and Els is not alone in being caught up in the anticipation of the world's top 64 players facing each other in 18-hole head-to-head matches.

It helps that, as part of the new World Golf Championship series, there is a total purse of pounds 3m and a first prize of pounds 630,000 but, compared to the usual diet of strokeplay tournaments where players get two rounds to make the cut and three to play their way into contention, one factor above all will provide motivation. It is one well known to professional tennis players, but which may come as a shock to the leading golf pros.

"Let's face it, you lose your match, you are out of the tournament," Els said. "So you have to give everything for that particular match. In a strokeplay event, you can play yourself into a position for the weekend to make your move. But with this event you have one match a day and if you lose, you go home; it's goodbye. It is going to be a little bit draining because of that and if you keep winning it will be a long week.

"But it is going to be a special tournament, and it will feel special just to make the field and to be there. To get 64 of the best players in the world right now together, it's exciting just thinking about it. We play so many strokeplay events through the year that I think people have forgotten how exciting matchplay can be. Every fan wants to see a bit of a dog fight, a head-to-head fight."

As for the strategy of whether to play the man or the course, Els thinks the secret is knowing when to do which. "I have had a bit of success in matchplay in the past and I must admit when things are going your way and you are playing well, you are just thinking about playing the golf course and trying to make a low number. But when you are one or two down, you start looking at what the other guy is doing. It goes both ways, depending on the situation.

"And you need a bit of luck with the draw because you can draw a brand name like [Tiger] Woods or [Greg] Norman. But there will be a lot of pressure on the favourite players who are not supposed to lose because there will be no easy matches. It will be a tough week but very satisfying, I'm sure, if you win, as well as being very beneficial to your bank account."

Els perhaps forgets that he is also a brand name that most of the field will be wanting to avoid. What really motivates him is getting back the world No1 spot he held for a couple of months last year. If Woods thinks he has his paws full with David Duval alone, he should think again. "I can catch Tiger and the others," Els said. "I know I have the talent to do it." Indeed, the South African's American campaign got off to the best possible start on Sunday when he won the Nissan Open at Riviera in Los Angeles ahead of the top two in the world, plus Davis Love and Nick Price for good measure. But, having slipped to seventh in the world, Els is due to play Paul Azinger in the first round at La Costa and will meet Duval in the quarter-finals. A meeting with Woods would have to wait until the 36-hole final on Sunday.

What forced him to relinquish the crown was a back injury. It started as a niggle at the Byron Nelson Classic, worsened at the Volvo PGA and then forced him out of the Buick Classic after nine holes only a week before he was due to defend at the US Open. His stunning early season form never returned. "It was very frustrating the second half of last year when I wasn't properly fit. But the back is beautiful now."

The injury was a result of one of the busiest international schedules of any of the leading players as Els tries to satisfy demands for his appearances at home, in Asia, Europe, where he first came to prominence in 1992, and in America, where he is a double US Open champion. Els knows his way around the inside of an aeroplane, albeit the front end, and will be less fazed than some Americans at the new global era golf is entering with the introduction of three World Championship events.

"I think they are going to be good for golf," Els said. "Golf is a global affair nowadays. You saw it at the Presidents Cup. The Japanese players are really up-and-coming players and heroes in their own country. [Paraguay's] Carlos Franco is probably one of the best known sports stars in his country. Golf has grown and people can watch us on television all round the world so the timing of these tournaments is perfect."