Ernie Els eyeing his third Claret Jug at Royal LiverpoolJuly, 2014
Ernie Els loves the Open, has won at Hoylake and was a contender in 2006. In an exclusive interview with Dan Murphy, the Big Easy insists he can challenge for a third Claret Jug
It is a quarter of a century since Ernie Els made his Open debut and 26 years since he won a junior event at Royal Liverpool.
So it is fair to say that he, links golf and the game’s oldest Major have some shared history. When the two-time champion tees it up at Hoylake he will be competing in his 24th Open.
The last time he wasn’t in the field was 1991 so small wonder he fancies his chances of a third Claret Jug, even after a season that has so far not been vintage.
“When you arrive on the first day of the Open and get on the 1st tee, you can feel it,” said Els.
“You can imagine the great players. Your memory just goes back and is flooded with the wins, or if you’ve done well, the shots you’ve played. You just can’t wait to get on to the course and see the bounces and play the different shots – that’s the unique thing about the Open.
“Then there is the crowds – you have these grandstands all over the course, you look over and you see the stands full with people and people’s knowledge of the game is so different than anywhere else you play. For me, it is my favourite Major of them all by far.”
The South African exudes a rare calmness in the Open, and this is surely one reason for his exceptional record in it, which includes top-10 finishes at every single venue on the current rota.
Another is a grasp of the strategy required to score consistently well in an event where there are more variables than any other in professional golf.
“Depending on the course and conditions, I’m not quite as conservative as Tiger is. Tiger really takes the fairway bunkers out of play, even if he’s playing a 5 iron off the tee and he’s coming in with over 200 yards to the green.
“But I believe in the same kind of strategy because if you hit your tee shot on a links in a bunker, you are spending at least half a shot or a full shot, because you cannot get it to the green.
“So it’s better to stay out of those fairway bunkers and then you can take on the second shot.”
With three consecutive champions in their 40s, it seems that experience has never counted for more at the Open. First came Darren Clarke at Sandwich, then Els at Lytham and most recently Phil Mickelson, who is the defending champion following a spectacular finish at Muirfield.
Hoylake is definitely right up there – I won there as a child. I don’t know what it is about links, I just can’t wait to get on it again” “Tom Watson almost won in his 60s, so there’s something about links golf where experience helps.
“You don’t have to be the longest golfer in the world. If your putting is hot you can compete – anyone can compete, anybody can win. I guess Darren (Clarke) started this trend.
“I think the equipment has helped us a lot. With Adams I’m going in to this Open with Pro hybrids and Tight Lies fairway woods – you could even play a 24˚ hybrid if you wanted, so I think equipment has kept us very relevant.
“I can play until I’m 60. If Tom Watson can almost do it at 60 or whatever he was, I think I’ve got the same chance.
“If I can keep myself turning – if you can turn you can get distance and I’m turning quite nicely at the moment – with experience, and I can get the putter going, I think I have a chance every time I play it.
“I don’t want to sound like a big-headed Gary Player at 70 but with the right conditions, right frame, I think I’ll have a chance every time I play it, until I don’t qualify anymore.
Els will be one of very few players to have seen Hoylake on a separate occasion to that sunbaked weekend in 2006.
While many will be surprised by what they see this time around, the 44-year-old knows that it was the exception and not the norm.
“If the wind blows at Hoylake, it can be one of the more difficult Open Championship courses because it’s so well bunkered.
“It’s almost like Lytham, on every hole there is a bunker that you’ve just got to miss and obviously from those bunkers you’re just chipping it out. So in many ways, if the wind comes up, and it blows, it is going to be one of our more difficult championships and the guys didn’t see that last time.
By then he had already won his first Claret Jug, in a play-off at Muirfield in 2002 against Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby.
A decade later, when many thought his Major-winning days were behind him, a second Open to add to his two US Opens arrived.
“I came into Lytham with good expectations. It was very quiet because no-one was looking at me, but I felt my game was just coming around and then, obviously, Adam (Scott) helped me a lot.”
At Muirfield last year, Els was both the defending champion and the most recent winner at that venue.
He spent the week on the fringes of contention, eventually finishing 11 shots behind Mickelson.
Make no mistake, this was one he feels that got away.
“I was very frustrated because each round I did something silly. I kept throwing myself back each round.
Even the third round when I thought I’d made a bit of a move, I found I was going back. Even before the last round I thought ‘man, you’ve still got a chance in this thing to get something going’ and I just could not get that magic going.
“As defending Open champion, you want to feel like you’re in there again, so that was a bit of a turning point in my year.
“I won two weeks before in Germany and I thought things were just coming into plan and when I didn’t win that, my year went a little bit sour.
“Muirfield and Lytham are definitely my two top links courses and Hoylake is definitely right up there – I won there as a child. I don’t know what it is about links, I just can’t wait to get on it again.”