Winner of his country's national open championship at Houghton in 1992 and at Royal Cape in 1996, Els arrives back in the land of his birth fresh from a second place finish in Thailand and a joint-third placing in Australia in the first two tournaments on the 1998 European tour.
His nail-biting play-off loss in Phuket to American phenom Tiger Woods will still be hurting as that was a title Els gave away with disappointing form - by his own lofty standards - over the final two days. The Heineken Classic in Perth was a different matter, though, and Els' closing 71 was one of the best rounds of the day, with Denmark's Thomas Bjorn posting a 74 for his eventual one-shot victory. The easy-swinging Els may have only just jetted in from Perth on Monday night but the popular South African always seems to peak at the appropriate moment. And the 1998 S.A. Open - with a total purse of 400,000 pounds sterling - is an appropriate moment.
Els - along with fellow-Southern Africans Nick Price, Fulton Allem, Mark McNulty and Retief Goosen - failed to stop Fiji's Vijay Singh from triumphing in last year's S.A. Open at Glendower. The reigning U.S. Open champion will therefore be acutely keen to claim a third S.A. Open title, especially given the quality of the field at Durban Country Club this week. The bespectacled Singh - currently ranked number 15 in the world - is back to defend, while other top-class contenders include New Zealand's Frank Nobilo, Germany's Bernhard Langer, 1987 champion McNulty, Italy's Costantino Rocca, Spain's Ignacio Garrido, the 1986 winner David Frost and 1995 victor Goosen.
Just the presence of Els, Singh, Langer and Nobilo in the championship field ensures that South African fans will be watching four players who - between them - won 11 titles on the prestigious U.S. and European tours last year. Although the 156-strong S.A. Open field has only drawn six of the world's top 50 this week, the split between the Southern African and European tour players features a host of tournament winners - and therefore several golfers who know how to win once in contention. Other leading European tour entries include Sweden's Mathias Gronberg, Michael Jonzon, Peter Hedblom, Jarmo Sandelin, Patrik Sjoland, Dennis Edlund, Anders Forsbrand, Daniel Chopra and Mats Hallberg, Germany's Sven Struver and Alexander Cejka, Australia's Wayne Riley, Englishman Jonathan Lomas and Jean van de Velde of France.
In hosting its 14th South African Open, par-72 Durban Country Club has been suitably toughened in terms of much thicker rough and narrower landing areas in certain places on the fairways. The greens might also pose something of a problem - the last couple of years have seen a slight drop in their usually high standard of preparation but early signs indicate that this trend is being reversed. Then there is the unpredictable wind to consider, which players like South Africa's Wayne Westner (in 1988 and 1991) and Zimbabwe's Tony Johnstone (with his record-breaking score of 267 in 1993) handled to perfection in winning their respective S.A. Open titles over the same coastal layout. The Indian Ocean winds will always be fickle and changeable; but the conditioning of the respected Durban Country Club layout is a given this week. What do some of the leading S.A. Open contenders have to say about the 1998 layout? "I think the greens are rolling a lot better than they were when I last played here," Els said on Tuesday after a laid-back practice round with good friend Frank Nobilo and top South African amateur Trevor Immelman. "Parts of the fairways are very narrow and the rough is up but this course still needs the wind to blow to make it a tough test. And I hope that the wind blows this week!". Johnstone pulled no punches: "I certainly don't want to be cock-eyed this week because the rough is really punishing! Plus I think one or two of the fairways could be wider in the landing area and the greens are running a lot slower than I remember. Costantino Rocca, coming to the point with true economy of words, rated Country Club as "a good course" while Bernhard Langer described it as "a refreshing old-fashioned-style golf course". Clinton Whitelaw, who seemed to have last Sunday's Nashua Wild Coast Challenge all wrapped before he self-destructed, won the S.A. Open at Glendower in early 1993: "I like Durban Country Club - it's a really good track. And, with the rough up, it's a proper open course." Tuesday's qualifying rounds at Bluff National Park and Royal Durban Golf Club saw 26 golfers advance through to Thursday's first round of the S.A. Open proper. South Africans Paul Friedlander, Pelop Panagopoulos, Warren Abery, Ben Fouchee and Hennie Otto, as well as Zimbabwe's Nasho Kamungeremu, were among the successful qualifiers. However, less fortunate were Hans Merensky Golf Club's Brenden Pappas, who had to withdraw because of a viral infection, and India's Alfred Dunhill Cup star Jeev Milkha Singh, who failed to make the main draw after carding a 74 at Bluff National Park. Wednesday's pro-am threw up a few interesting groupings, with Springbok rugby captain Gary Teichmann partnering Germany's Alex Cejka, star rugby fullback Andre Joubert and S.A. tour commissioner Arnold Mentz both grouped with another German in Sven Struver and former South African cricketing all-rounder Mike Procter linked with Sweden's Daniel Chopra.