Ernie Els's record in the Scottish Open and the Open Championship is so remarkable it is entirely understandable he has long entered his favourite fortnight on the calendar with the attitude "Been there, done it, got the polo shirt". However, this time around the swagger may not come so naturally.
Indeed, when the South African tees off in today's first round here at Loch Lomond at 12.50pm – in the company of one Colin Montgomerie – he will surely do so with hope in his swing rather than the conviction of yesteryear. "This hasn't been a great season for me professionally, everyone knows that," Els admitted yesterday. "But this has always been a good time of the year for me. So I'm looking to turn things around."
To be brutally honest the only thing Els has managed to turn around recently is the key on his car's ignition on Friday nights at the majors. Missed cuts in the Masters and the US Open has seen his world ranking slip to No 23 and while only the statisticians will truly believe there to be 22 golfers better than Els, his dramatic fall in the standings has been no mathematical farce. Put simply Ernie has not looked like Ernie or performed like Ernie. He is still big. But it has all been anything but easy.
The reason? Nothing technical, claims Els. When playing with his fellow multi-millionaires at the exclusive Queenwood Club in Surrey he has pocketed the side-bets with his normal monotony. ("It's the best social golf I've ever played," he said. "The other day I made seven birdies and three eagles against [the former cricketer] Barry Richards.") But give him a scorecard and his caddie a bib and his renowned rhythm goes Awol.
"It's just a couple of mental issues," said Els. "Physically I feel good but sometimes I'm not quite there. I'm only there for one or two days of the week. I want to work on that, to focus on playing hard for four days. I don't know, when you've done it for 20 years you almost go into automatic mode and you don't want that. You want to be putting it into second gear, third gear... I feel I've been floating around a little bit. So let's get a little bit more drive and go."
With The Open just seven days away the need for some forward thrust is indeed pronounced. What a shame it would be if Els cannot do justice to his incredible streak in the game's oldest major. While his record on this Tom Weiskopf masterpiece has a decidedly Tigeresque feel – a dual-winner, he is 84-under for his last 32 rounds here – when it comes to top 10s in The Open (11 in his last 17 outings) even Mr Woods must tip his visor. Purely in the light of his last three Open appearances (3rd, 2006; T4th, 2007; T7th, 2008) the 79-1 on offer on one betting exchange is generous to the point of insulting.
Certainly Els still possesses the desire, despite his 40th birthday looming in October. "In some ways it does get tougher to get yourself motivated," he said. "But it would be very difficult to just walk away. I've been doing this ever since I've had a memory. Golf is not like tennis. In tennis you play for a short period of time. Golf is a lifelong sport. And I'm not turning 50, I'm turning 40. Kenny Perry is 48 and No 4 in the world right now. Vijay [Singh] is 46 and won the FedEx Cup last year. Ben Hogan won three majors in a row in his 40s. So there's plenty left in the tank. I just have to get it all going again."
Here would be a timely place to start and with 22 of the world's top 50 in attendance, not to mention its £500,000 first prize, the Scottish Open is, in so many respects, a fine dress rehearsal for The Open. Except, of course, with regards to the wildly different conditions underfoot. Still, that may not be a bad thing if the players' reports of the brutality of Turnberry are to be believed. "The thickest rough I have ever seen," was Padraig Harrington's assessment and Els was just as frank. "It could be quite a beast if the wind gets up," he said. As an old links campaigner he will recognise the beauty in that.