The Open 2013: Ernie Els glad to be back as he returns the Claret Jug
Last year's champion has a good feeling ahead of the start of the tournament on Thursday
Monday 15 July 2013
Ernie Els could be forgiven for thinking it was the beginning of the end of his career when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.
The following year that feeling no doubt intensified when he failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time since making his debut in 1994, but three months later he was lifting the Claret Jug as Open champion for a second time.
Another year on, the 43-year-old today returned that famous trophy to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson ahead of the defence of his title at Muirfield, scene of his first Open triumph 11 years ago.
"I'm glad to be where I'm sitting, defending a major championship after being inducted into the Hall of Fame," said Els, who insisted he had returned the Claret Jug in excellent condition, in contrast to 2011 winner Darren Clarke.
"Hopefully that monkey is off people's backs, thinking that your career is basically done after you're in the Hall of Fame. When I was 41 and getting inducted, we felt that there's still a lot of golf to be played. So that's what we're doing. We're trying to play golf now."
Els was just 24 when he won his first major title in the 1994 US Open and remembers "hiding from the world" on his return to England, but after winning the US Open again in 1997 and the 2002 Open, it would be a decade before his next taste of major success.
"It's taken a while," the South African admitted. "The first two came within three years and then I had to wait 15 years for the next two. It's been quite a ride.
"I'm very proud of the way we've kind of stuck with it. Having had it your way for a good five to 10 years, and then really having to work hard for it, it feels very special to have won it the way we did.
"The one at Lytham felt so special. The hair on my arms wouldn't go down... walking down from the 18th tee right through to the putt that went in, my hair was just standing up. It was the most amazing feeling I've ever had. And I think that's because of the fourth one coming the way it happened."
The way it happened caught most people by surprise, with Els rated an 80/1 outsider by the bookmakers at the start of the week and 25/1 as he started the final round six shots behind Adam Scott.
He was still four behind with just four to play but as Scott crumbled with a quartet of bogeys, Els birdied the 18th and then waited to see if he had done enough.
"I should have probably put money on it," Els added. "I thought about it, especially when I was 80/1, but I've never, ever put a cent on myself or any other player. I wouldn't feel right to do that.
"But some of my friends obviously backed me. I know some of Ricky's friends (his caddie Ricky Roberts) made a lot of money. Ricky told them how good I was playing, under the radar, coming in. And the boys hit it quite big."
Els was not in such good form before his win in 2002, finishing 50th in the preceding Scottish Open at Loch Lomond and only finding his game on Wednesday evening at Muirfield after long hours on the range with coach David Leadbetter.
He fared even worse in this year's Scottish Open, missing the cut and saying he was glad to be leaving early after having "no idea" on the greens at Castle Stuart.
However, he can also point to finishing 13th in the Masters and fourth in the US Open this season, not to mention winning his 28th European Tour title in the BMW International Open in Munich, as evidence that his renaissance continues.
"I really can't wait for Thursday, I have a good feel about it," Els added. "Since my first practice round two weeks ago it's amazing how the course has changed. The course is getting firmer and faster and accuracy will be at a premium.
"It reminds me a little bit of Lytham, but where Lytham goes in and comes back out, on this course the front nine goes round the outside and the back nine you play more in the middle of the course. Each and every hole is a little bit different. Every links shot that you can imagine, you're going to play it this week."
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