Big Easy chasing victory at Dunhill Links Championship

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South Africas Ernie Els hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Southport, Britain on July 21, 2017.

South Africas Ernie Els hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Southport, Britain on July 21, 2017.

ST ANDREWS - Ernie Els is back at St Andrews, chasing a first elusive victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship starting on Thursday.

Twice Els enjoyed success as a member of the South African team in the old Dunhill Cup, the precursor tournament to the Alfred Dunhill Links, winning with Retief Goosen and David Frost, but that was almost 20 years ago.

Els said: “A win at the Home of Golf feels very sweet and I was lucky enough to experience that as part of the South African team. It would obviously be nice to have done that in the Dunhill Links, which is a championship I would 100 percent love to win.

“Ever since they introduced this format back in 2001, with pro’s playing with amateurs, it’s been one of my favourite weeks of the year. I love Scotland, the fans are the best, and we get to play on three amazing links courses.

“It’s always a thrill to play the Old Course and I feel blessed that it’s been such a constant part of my career, not only in Dunhill Cups and Alfred Dunhill Links Championships, but in the five Opens that I’ve played there.”

The keenness is there, but Els is now 47. Does he still have the same appetite for the game now, as he did when he was winning four Major Championships between 1994 and 2012?

“I haven’t played my best stuff the last couple of years, but I still love the challenge, the practising, working hard on my game and competing. I’ve still got the hunger. Hopefully I can get something going soon, and then who knows. I still believe I have the game to win.”

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Els has twice come close to winning the Alfred Dunhill Links, only to lose by one shot. He says the closest was 2001 when he made a birdie on the 18th green on the Sunday to finish at 17-under-par. He recalls: “It looked like it might be enough for at least a play-off, but then Paul Lawrie drained a 40-footer from the Valley of Sin to beat me by a shot.

“Again in 2003, I shot 20-under, finishing with back-to-back birdies on the 17th and 18th, but again got beaten by a shot by Lee Westwood. I’m still speaking to them, though,” he said with a rueful smile.

“I was also very close to winning the Team Championship with my dad Neels. That would have been very special,” he added.

Els is passionate about keeping himself in good shape and has a gym at his home in Florida and a personal trainer Vern McMillan.

“You need to stay in good shape to play your best golf and to keep the niggles of the body to a minimum. That gets even more important as you get a bit older. I’m in the gym most days when I’m not playing tournaments.

“Vern and I have known each other a good few years now. He has a very scientific approach to how the body performs and what you need to do in order to give yourself the best chance of playing your best golf. He puts me through a lot of pain, but tells me it’s good for me.”

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If Els is passionate about his golf and his businesses, he has a very special commitment to the charity work he does to support children with autism, after his son Ben was diagnosed. The Els Center for Excellence welcomed its first students at the Lower School in 2015.

“That was a proud moment for us. Our dream is becoming a reality,” said Els. “I have to give enormous credit to my wife Liezl. She’s the driving force behind this and her energy, her passion and dedication has got us to where we are.

“Now we’re just opening the Upper School too, so it’s a very exciting time. We’ve also built a special short game practice area at the Center, which the kids love and it’s great fun for me to get out there with them.

“All along, we knew that we wanted the Center of Excellence to be much more than a school; we wanted it to be a game-changing facility that would positively impact the autism community locally and far and wide through our various global programmes. That’s happening now. And this is just the beginning. It’s incredible to think what could be achieved for the autism community in the next ten years.”