He was quick to say how much he is looking forward to this week’s Emirates Australian Open, what will be only his second appearance in golf’s fourth-oldest national championship, but Ernie Els can be forgiven if his thoughts wander a little over the next few days.
Non-playing captain of the International team at next week’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, the 50 year-old South African is likely to have other things on his mind.
“I haven’t played too much since the summer,” he said. “I played last week in South Africa; not very well. But I had a lot of rust on my game. My focus is on the team – not really on myself – and getting the guys going for next week. But I’d love to play well this week.”
Catching up on sleep will surely be another priority. Having just played in the pre-championship pro-am, Els looks little groggy. Which is not surprising. Having arrived in Sydney only on Monday, the four-time major champion had been awake since 1.50am. International travel may be glamorous to some; jet lag is not for anyone.
Els and Royal Melbourne have some history, of course. His 12-under par 60 in the 2004 Heineken Classic remains the lowest-round ever shot over the composite course many regard as the finest 18-holes in the southern hemisphere. Few understand it’s nuances and subtleties better than Els.
“I have a very good feel for Royal Melbourne,” he said with some justification. “I’ve won there a couple of times, so I know how to get round. I understand the strategy involved. It’s all about positioning more than power.”
Match play golf is another of Els’ specialities. Six times he won the old World Match Play Championship at Wentworth in England. But one match in particular sticks out. Back in 1994, Els saw off Seve Ballesteros – himself a five-time winner of the event – on the 35th green. It was an epic encounter. Ballesteros made 14 birdies – including seven twos – in those 35 holes. And lost.
“My dad still cries when he talks of what Seve said to him after that great battle,” said Els. “‘I played very well today,’ Seve said. ‘But your son, he is very special.’”
So it is clear that few men are better qualified than Els to lead the International side into what has been an almost constantly futile conflict. Only once in the 25-year history of the biennial event – at Royal Melbourne in 1998 – have the Americans lost. And, like it or not, Els will have to do without one of his four wild-card picks after Jason Day’s withdrawal last week through injury. It was 3am South African time last Friday that Els and Day talked.
“Jason said he was prepping in California and felt a huge tweak in his back,” revealed Els. “It was something he’s felt before so he knew there wasn’t going to be a short term solution. It was going to be a long term injury. So that was that. I know he wanted to be here, badly. We’ve had a lot of correspondence through the year and four or five team meetings. Jason was at each one, so he was totally invested to play and it’s unfortunate what happened.”
Inevitably, the subject of Els’ American counterpart next week came up. Rare is the press conference that does not rate a mention of Tiger Woods. Asked which member of his side is best equipped to take on the 14-time major champion in next week’s singles, Els was predictably vague.
“I don’t want to have a guy feel overwhelmed,” said the International skipper. “I will not put a guy in there that’s going to feel that way. I’ll see who is going to feel like he’s really got the best chance against Tiger. I don't think today he has the same kind of aura he had in the past. It’s different. It’s more of a celebrity kind of aura. But he’s still very competitive. He’s won the Masters and he won in Japan. When Tiger is healthy, he can play at a very high level. But he’s not what he used to be consistently. That’s just what age does. But we’ll see when we get to Melbourne.”
Before that though, Els does have some golf to play. Yes, he is 50. No, he hasn’t won an event since the 2013 BMW International Open in Germany. And yes, his putting from short range can be a little shaky. But the competitive spirit remains.
“It would be wonderful to be in contention,” he said with a smile. “I really like the course. I’ve played in Australia a lot and I’ve won four or five times. But I’ve never been able to play a lot of Australian Opens. So it would be great to get in the mix.”