PERTH: South Africa’s world number three Ernie Els is a strong favourite to win the US$1.68 million Johnnie Walker Classic starting today.
Els, 33, is enjoying the hottest streak of his career – five wins from his past seven starts, including the Heineken Classic in Melbourne two weeks ago.
“My confidence is nine out of 10 right now,” Els said yesterday as he prepared to take on a strong field in Australia’s richest event, taking place at Lake Karrinyup, near here.
Leading a formidable list of rivals is South Africa’s Retief Goosen, the reigning champion, who won last year's event by a remarkable eight strokes.
The 2002 US Open champion, currently ranked fifth in the world, shot a course record 63 in the third round to beat Sweden’s Pierre Fulke and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
Fourth-ranked Garcia will also be in action again – provided he recovers from a minor hamstring injury – still seeking his first win on Australian soil.
Garcia slightly injured himself while kicking a football at a charity event in Perth on Tuesday.
He said yesterday he would monitor the condition closely overnight.
“I will not be making any decision until Thursday about whether I will play,” he said.
The field includes England’s Paul Casey, 25, recognised as one of the best young talents in the game.
Casey held his nerve on the crucial final day to win the ANZ Championship in Sydney on Sunday.
Els said he considered he had had a perfect preparation for the Johnnie Walker Classic by playing a two-round exhibition in Bali last weekend with England’s Justin Rose and Nick Faldo and Australian Robert Allenby.
“It was light, but competitive,” he said.
Els, fourth here last year, has spent the past two days re-acquainting himself with the Karrinup course and checking out changes, especially to the first and 14th holes.
The first has been lengthened by 28 metres to 300 metres, while the 14th has gone from a driveable par four to one of 297 metres uphill.
“Every day last year I went for it – and I made one birdie,” he said. “I’ll be laying up this year.”
Els’ recent streak began when he won the World Match Play in October.
Then came victories in the Nedbank Challenge at South Africa’s Sun City and in two US PGA Tour events – the Mercedes Championship and the Sony Open, both in Hawaii.
After being runner-up to China's Zhang Lian-wei in the Caltex Masters in Singapore, he returned to number one in the Heineken.
Former world number one Faldo (now 66th), a two-time winner of the Johnnie Walker, and Rose (37th) will both tee-off here.
Australian hopes will be carried by the country’s top player, 32-year-old Allenby, ranked 25th in the world.
It is the first time in its 13-year history the Johnnie Walker has been played on the same course in consecutive years. – AFP