Royal Lytham is what the Big Easy ordered
THE number of South African players at this year's Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes has doubled since the tournament was last played at the Scottish links 11 years ago.
Seven South Africans teed up in 2001 and this year an astonishing 14 men from our shores will challenge for the famous Claret Jug, underlining the global nature of the sport and the rude health of South African golf.
Back in 2001, the year David Duval won, Gary Player and David Frost were both well past their best, and qualifiers such as Bradford Vaughan and Jean Hugo were solid professionals.
But this year, of the 14 South Africans in attendance, five are major winners and two - Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen - have won the British Open in the past decade.
In fact, Els's 2002 Open triumph at Muirfield was his third and, to date, last major. It seems almost impossible that Els has never added to his majors tally after winning his third by the age of 32.
But Els's supposed best years coincided with an era of Tiger Woods' dominance, and Phil Mickelson's emergence as a major threat. The Big Easy has not won a major in 10 years.
But he goes into this week's tournament as a good dark horse, thanks to a season of promise that had him in contention at the US Open in June until the back nine on the Sunday.
If Els brings his form and growing confidence to Lytham, plus his natural love of links golf, he will be near the top of the heap going down the stretch.
"The Open is my favourite major of the year and probably my favourite tournament on the entire schedule," Els said on his official website.
"I've got a pretty nice record in this event, with a win and 12 top-tens in my 21 career appearances, and that's something that I think accurately reflects my love of links golf."
He said the course for this year's tournament was suited to his style: "Royal Lytham is a ball-striker's dream. There are over 200 bunkers - equivalent to 11 on every hole - and you have to hit it well and be careful. It's as well bunkered as any golf course I've ever seen.
"On links courses, you have to position your ball, not just bomb it. You have to create different types of shot, use your imagination, and play smart. It's the complete test of golf, especially when you throw some rough weather into the mix."
Els has played well at Lytham, finishing in a tie for second in 1996 and a tie for third in 2001.
The other South Africans in the field are Thomas Aiken, Tim Clark, George Coetzee, Andrew Georgiou, Retief Goosen, Branden Grace, Trevor Immelman, Jbe Kruger, Garth Mulroy, Charl Schwartzel, Richard Sterne and Grant Veenstra.