MELBOURNE: Ernie Els is set to wage his own battle with the Royal Melbourne Golf Club course this week as he bids for a third consecutive Heineken Classic title.
The third-ranked Els is the only player from the world's top 10 in the US$1.54 million tournament, which is co-sanctioned by the Australasian and European Tours.
Els is listed as 13/4 favourite with local bookmaker TAB Sportsbet, while Australian pair Stuart Appleby and Adam Scott, both quoted at 8/1, are the only others in single-figure odds.
Appleby, the world number 13, won on the US Tour in Hawaii last month but young Queenslander Scott is out of form after a last-round 75 to finish equal 35th in last week's Johnnie Walker Classic in Bangkok.
Els himself could manage only 10th in defence of his title Bangkok, but the three-times major winner is confident he can thwart local hopes of an Australian win this week.
“I feel like I am coming back to my form again,” Els told a news conference ahead of today's first round.
“Last week I was a little bit off over the weekend with my putter. I feel like I am striking the ball well and I am pacing myself a little better this year.
“I am not playing as much as I did last year. I am playing all my favourite events.”
The South African's one-stroke victory over Briton Nick Faldo and Australia's Peter Lonard 12 months ago was his third win in his first four tournaments of the year, and a fourth in five going back to the previous season.
His remarkable start to the year continued when he made it four in five at the Johnnie Walker Classic the next week and he went on to capture his first Volvo European Order of Merit title.
Els regards the course's greens at Royal Melbourne as possibly better than those at Augusta National, the home of the US Masters. Alister MacKenzie designed both.
“I love playing at Royal Melbourne. Conditions are quite tough on the greens. I've always liked that,” said Els.
Australia's 48-year-old Greg Norman, who is still battling with a long-term back complaint, smiled and charmed his way through a pro-am with leading Australian cricketer Shane Warne on Wednesday.
“My goal is still to go out there and win,” said the two-times British Open winner. – Reuters