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Els' momentum mirrors game's in home country

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

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For Ernie Els' fans, the answer is 46 long.

Gary Player

9

(British Open: 1959, '68, '74; Masters: 1961, '74, '78; U.S. Open: 1965; PGA: 1962, '72)
(File)

The question: What is his coat size?

Els is at the top of the list of those golfers expected to have legitimate chances of slipping on a green jacket Sunday. He likes his chances after winning two of his past three starts on the PGA Tour.

"I've got a bit of a game coming in this week," said Els, who has seen his world ranking rise to No. 8 after recently dipping as low as 20th. "I'm really looking forward to this week."

Els leads a contingent of seven South Africans in the year's first major, the third-largest group from any country after the United States and England. Several of his younger compatriots are also coming into Augusta on a bit of a roll.

Louis Oosthuizen, 27, won the Andalucia Open on March 28 for his first European Tour title to earn his second Masters invitation. Charl Schwartzel, 25, who is making his Masters debut, has moved into the top 25 in the rankings after battling Els down the stretch at Doral three weeks ago.

The reason for their strong play can be traced back to junior golf and amateur programs in South Africa that are expected to continue to churn out stars, they said.

Bobby Locke

4

(British Open: 1949, '50, '52, '57)
(File)

Oosthuizen said he came up through the junior program and was part of the Ernie Els Foundation for young golfers.

"It was a privilege in being in all that," he said.

Rory Sabbatini, who tied for second in the 2006 Masters, also credits the junior program for the development of so many up-and-comers from South Africa.

"It gives a great opportunity for kids to get out there and get it on," he said.

Added Els: "We've got a good junior program, got a good amateur program, and the weather helps. Just got a really good group of young players right now. Louie Oosthuizen is playing really good, Charl's playing good, Rory and myself, Retief (Goosen), so we've got a nice healthy group of players right now, and it's just that kind of cycle that's coming through right now."

After a few years in a funk, Els is once again pedaling hard on that cycle. He admittedly lost a bit of steam after so many close calls in majors in 2004. He had a chance to win each of the four that year, starting with a heartbreaking loss at the Masters when Phil Mickelson's birdie putt on the 18th snatched away the green jacket.

Nick Price

3

(PGA: 1992, '94; British Open: 2002)
(File)

"Phil played great, wonderful golf that year and made that putt on 18 here," Els said. "I didn't see that putt live, but I could hear the roar, obviously.

"It was quite a blow, but it was a great win for him. I haven't really played very well since then, and maybe that had a bit of an effect on me, after all."

He hopes this year will be different. His countrymen also expect a good showing from Els.

"He's playing some pretty impressive golf," Sabbatini said. "It looks like he's found his confidence out there. Obviously golf is a pretty fickle game, and I've seen just for a while that he kind of lost his confidence in himself, and to be honest it's just a matter of time before you regain it."

Oosthuizen agreed: "I'd definitely put some money on him this week."

Els attributes his resurgence to simply working on his game, hinting that he might have been too much of the Big Easy in his work habits.

Ernie Els

3

(U.S. Open: 1994, '97; British Open: 2002)
(File)

"I want it badly again," he said. "Just basically the mental feeling that I have that I want to put a lot of hard work in, and just feel like doing it right now. I don't mind standing out on the range for hours."

His main goal won't surprise many. It's not to be the world's No. 1, as he has stated previously. It's not to break out of the logjam of current players tied with three majors -- Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington and Mickelson.

For him, it's to win his first green jacket. And he hopes life for him, at least at the Masters, truly does begin at age 40.

"I just want to try to win the Masters at some stage," Els said. "I don't care about anything else, really."

Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or mike.wynn@augustachronicle.com.

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