Els prepares to hold off strong field in another title defence

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The Independent Online

Ernie Els is the defending champion here at the Johnnie Walker Classic but when is he not? In each of his first four tournaments of the season, Els has had to remember to pack the trophy with the rest of his luggage.

This is the South African's third event of the year. In the first two, he came away from Hawaii with a 50 per cent defence rate after winning the Sony Open. Next week he will be defending the Heineken Classic in Melbourne but this week he will be trying to replicate his 10-stroke demolition job from Perth last year.

This tournament may not have the word "Asian" in its title any more but Thailand remains its spiritual home, so to speak. This is the fifth time the country has hosted the event and the last time it was at the Alpine club in Bangkok - nowhere could be further from the feeling of the winter sports season in central Europe - the winner was Tiger Woods in 2001.

The world No 1 is not present this week but the sponsors have acquired a strong field in all departments. There are youngsters like Justin Rose and Adam Scott, stalwarts such as Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood and golden oldies like Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam. There are even a couple of major champions in Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel.

Els is aiming to become the first player to win the title three times, a feat he would have achieved already had he not lost a play-off to Woods in 1998 at Blue Canyon on the Thai island of Phuket. The island is better known as a beach haven and Els and his family spent last week there.

He had intended to work on his golf but failed to pick up a club. "We took a boat ride one day to the Pipi Islands, did a bit of diving, the family had a great time," said the world No 3. "I couldn't quite fit golf in."

At a corporate outing on Monday, Els and his caddie, Ricci Roberts, suffered from stomach pains, although it was not related to the outbreak of chicken flu in this and other Asian countries. "It could have been the water, it could have been anything," Els said. "I'm still around, it definitely wasn't the bird flu."

Els, last year's European Order of Merit winner, may not play as much on the European Tour this year in order to remain fresh for the majors. Similarly, Thomas Bjorn intends to play more in America prior to the Masters, but from May onwards will be back in Europe. A number of European players have similar plans but these have to be balanced by gaining a place in the Ryder Cup team for September's match. But Bjorn said: "If I was looking for the best way to make the team, I'd play every week until September. If I achieve what I want to achieve, the Ryder Cup takes care of itself."

Meanwhile, Curtis, the unknown American who pipped Bjorn for the Open Championship last July, is heading in the opposite direction. He has taken out his European tour card and hopes to play in events like the Volvo PGA at Wentworth in May. "I want to keep on improving," said Curtis, who was ranked 396th in the world when he won the Open, "and playing all over the world is the only way you can do that." It is a refreshing thought from an American golfer.