Ernie Els (Getty Images)
Ernie Els returns to the venue of his 1998 and 2011 South African Open victories for this week’s Volvo Golf Champions as he looks to start 2013 in winning style.
The South African tees up at Durban Country Club for the first European Tour event after the festive break, 12 months after missing out on this event after Branden Grace denied the Open Champion and Retief Goosen in a three-man play-off.
“I've had a bit of success here in the past, and really glad to be back,” said Els.
“We'll check out the golf course and see what it's like, and see what happens. It's a great event, great field, and nice to play four rounds of golf to start the year off, so we'll see how we go.
“If the wind blows, it's a really tough course. You see what the greens are like and see what the course is like.
“I've had a bit of a break. I'm coming in here with a couple of weeks off but I feel good about my game.
“I've been shooting scores and I feel I've been hitting the ball nicely. Like I say, you have to get the rust off like everybody, but I feel good.
“I can't be overconfident but I feel good about my chances and I love the golf course, so that's a positive, and we'll see where the week goes. Got to take one step in the tournament and the next one, and then we'll see where we go.”
Els’ fourth Major triumph at Royal Lytham in July has enabled him to choose his schedule more than this time last year, when he was struggling to get exemptions for some of the big events.
“I've got a great schedule,” he added. “I'm really fortunate to play in South Africa, I didn't play here last year at all, and it's great to be back and to play here.
“It's nice to kick off the season here, and I've decided to go to the Middle East again. I haven't been there for quite a few years, either, and then we'll go back to the States and start our run to the Masters.
“Last year, winning The Open, it's opening doors for me again. It's a dream come true, and we've got some really nice things ahead of us now. I'm 43, I'll be 44 this year, and it’s nice to know that you can play in all of the big events.”
Els admits that The Open Championship is set to remain the highlight of his year in 2013, where he will not only be the defending champion, but also won last time it was staged at this year’s venue Muirfield.
“I’m very excited to go back,” he added. “I haven't been back since we won - can't wait to get there to be honest.
“Obviously there's a lot of golf to be played but it's really a highlight of my year to go to The Open Championship at Muirfield, to go there as the past winner and the last winner as defending champion, it's awesome.
“I can't wait to get there. That's really one of my favourite Open rota golf courses, there and St. Andrews and Royal Liverpool, so looking forward to getting there.”
Els is not the only Open Champion playing this week – in fact four of the last five are present with Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Louis Oosthuizen all in the field.
And 2010 winner Oosthuizen is hoping for a home winner come Sunday, although admits he will have to quickly shake off some rustiness if he is to lift the trophy.
“I’ve been on the farm, playing golf with friends and just relaxing really,” said Oosthuizen.
“I felt very relaxed but I think once we tee off tomorrow, we'll be going for it.
“I'm just going to go out and play, and like I say, just haven't really played much golf. So I think there will be a few loose shots and a few rusty shots out there, but luckily it's a golf course where I'm familiar.
“Hopefully it's going to be a South African that lifts the trophy at the end of the week. I think everyone is expecting probably that there will be low scoring, but we just need to go out tomorrow and see what the scores are going to be like. I think you can expect probably low numbers out there.”