Els leads SA magnificent seven

2010-04-07 17:54
Ernie Els (AFP)

Augusta - Three-time major champion Ernie Els, coming off two impressive triumphs and seeking his first Masters title, leads a South African magnificent seven into the year's first major championship.

Els won a World Golf Championships event at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month, serving notice at age 40 that he was on the form that produced wins at the 1994 and 1997 US Open and 2002 British Open.

"I'm really looking forward to this. I've got a bit of game coming in," Els said. "I just want to win the Masters at some stage. I want it badly again. I want to put a lot of hard work in and just feel like doing it right now."

So much for the "Big Easy" reputation of Els.

"He is playing some pretty impressive golf," said countryman Rory Sabbatini. "It looks like he has found his confidence."

South Africans trail only the American and English contingents in the field at Augusta National Golf Club, with Els, 2001 and 2004 US Open champion Retief Goosen and 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman having won majors.

While Immelman has not won since his major breakthrough at Augusta, Goosen could be a threat this week as well after five top-six finishes already this year, fourth at Hawaii and Bay Hill and level fifth at the WGC Match-Play.

Joining them are 2007 Masters runner-up Sabbatini and 2006 Masters runner-up Tim Clark plus young stars Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, the latest products from a strong junior golf system in their homeland.

"We've got a good amateur program," Els said. "We've just got a really good group of young players. Luis Oosthuizen is playing really good. Charl is playing good. It's just that kind of cycle that's coming through right now."

Schwartzel served notice that Charl is in charge by winning this year's Africa Open and Johannesburg Open European Tour titles as well as runner-up efforts to Els at Doral and Spain's Pablo Martin at the Dunhill Championship.

Schwartzel, 25, is the European Order of Merit leader and comes into Augusta after a third-place effort last week at Houston. He has confidence he can add a green jacket to his stunning 2010 start.

"My expectations are high," Schwartzel said. "I do believe I can win if I play the way I am playing. It's a difficult thing, the way I'm approaching it -- try not to make it too big.

"If I can get myself to stay in the present and play as any other tournament, obviously around Augusta you need to be very patient, it's what I'm going to try and do. If I play the way I'm playing, I've got a good chance."

Schwartzel and Els toured Augusta National together last week, an invaluable trip for the 23rd-ranked Masters debutante alongside a 16-time Masters starter.

"He showed me around, pointed out some things," Schwartzel said. "Every hole is a little something at Augusta. He gave me good points."

Oosthuizen, 27, won the Andalucia Open two weeks ago to qualify for the Masters, where he missed the cut last year in his Augusta National debut.

"Now I want to stay in the top 50 and be competitive every time I play," said 42nd-ranked Oosthuizen.

Oosthuizen likes Els' chance this week as well.

"I would definitely put some money on him this week," he said.

Els, who has risen to eighth in the rankings after falling to 20th, knows the bets would have been against him until last month's victories.

"If you're a betting man, you would have gotten really good odds anywhere in the world that Ernie Els would win two tournaments in a row. I know a lot of guys basically have written me off," Els said.

"But two wins is definitely special. I'll just keep working hard. There are still a lot of flaws in my game that I've got to figure out and get right. I know I'm never going to play the game perfectly but I can still improve."

Read more on:    the masters  |  ernie els

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