Golf / The Open: Els raring to go as Faldo struggles to find focus: Tim Glover reports from Turnberry on the contrasting fortunes of two major winners as they prepare for the Open Championship

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The Independent Online
THE DIFFERENCE in the performances of Nick Faldo and Ernie Els, both heavily backed to win the Open Championship which starts here tomorrow, was pronounced. Faldo is still searching for the form that won him three Open titles and made him the best player in the world. Els and the Ailsa are ready.

'I don't know how Faldo is playing,' Els said. Nor, it appears, does Faldo. 'I'll find out on Thursday what it's all about,' Faldo said. They are drawn together for the first and second rounds and while the 36-year-old Faldo admitted that nothing went right for him in the US Open the 24-year-old Els won at Oakmont. It was his first major victory and there is hardly anybody in the game who thinks it will be his last.

Faldo, who missed the cut in the US Open, has gone back to the drawing board with his coach David Leadbetter, or more accurately back to the video screen, watching films of the halcyon Faldo winning claret jugs. What Faldo has been particularly focussing on is his putting. 'I'm copying the same stroke, using the same putter,' he said. 'I'm starting to remember the feelings I had a few years ago. I hope it will make a big improvement to my game. I'm waiting for that last little thing to click into place.'

Faldo, who has only played in five tournaments on the European Tour, has had a poor run in America (in the Masters he was 32nd) and next year he will spend more time in Uncle Sam's back yard with the specific aim of giving himself a better chance at the Masters, the US Open and the US PGA championship.

'It takes time to acclimatise and to get used to the different conditions,' Leadbetter, who is based in Florida, said. 'Nick knows more than anyone that if your game isn't ready you're not going to find it on the eve of a championship.'

That is the situation that Faldo appears to be in here. 'What happened at the US Open was telling me something. I had to go back and have a complete re-think. Somehow I've got to be positive.

'Monty (Colin Montgomerie) had 26 putts per round in the US Open. I had 33. Everybody goes through rough spells and I've got to keep fighting away. I'm not going to keel over. You have ups and downs throughout your career. That's part of life. Mentally it's been frustrating. I've gone to the course thinking I'm going to shoot 64 and it didn't happen. I'm not worried about it.'

When Faldo played three practice rounds over the Ailsa course last week - one of them with Prince Andrew - conditions were similar. 'It was wet and damp and there was no wind,' he said. 'We need a breeze to dry out the course and give us a feeling of what might come.'

Faldo's strategy for playing links golf is to hit the ball at a lower trajectory. 'You can forget yardages, you've got to go by feel,' he said.

'Depending on the wind you can hit the ball the same distance with a nine-iron or a three-iron. There are no golden rules and you've got to go with what feels right. Imagination comes into it.'

Els, who missed the cut in the Bell's Scottish Open at Gleneagles last week, has been practising here with his compatriot Gary Player. 'I've got a long way to go to step into Gary's shoes,' Els said. Considering that Els's foot size is massively bigger, he would be unwise to do so.

'I did not hit the ball well at Gleneagles,' Els said. 'But I can feel the difference this week. I'm playing better and hopefully I shall be in contention on Sunday.

'I'm hitting the ball nicely. Winning two majors in a year is possible. Nick Faldo has done it so why not me? If you are on your game and things are flowing it's possible. I have a long road ahead of me. I want to enjoy it and I am.'

Els first visited Turnberry in 1987. 'I walked about but never played,' he said. Nobody knew who he was and he was not offered courtesy of the course. Now he is almost as recognisable as the lighthouse on the ninth, his future equally as bright.