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The majors this season have been anything but a day at the beach for South Africa's Ernie Els. (Photo: Getty Images)
The majors this season have been anything but a day at the beach for South Africa's Ernie Els. (Photo: Getty Images)

Armed with new driver and confidence, Els upbeat

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Ernie Els' performance in the majors thus far this year has been anything but encouraging, what with his missed cut at the Masters and his pedestrian tie for 51st at the U.S. Open. But some have labeled the Big Easy a favorite this week.

By Melanie Hauser, Correspondent

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- Maybe it was last week's closing 65.

Maybe it was that gaggle of top-six finishes. Eight to be exact. Including one Claret Jug. In 16 Open Championship tries.

Maybe it was inside knowledge -- that he's finally ready to stop hesitating and trust his surgically repaired knee.

Maybe it was just wishful thinking.

We know it wasn't the missed cut at the Masters. Or the T-51 at the U.S. Open.

Whatever the case, the surprising fact here is you can get 10-to-1 odds on Ernie Els to win this week at Carnoustie. That's second only behind Tiger Woods at 3-to-1 and ahead of Phil Mickelson at 16-to-1.

Yes, you heard right.

Ernie Els. The man we've heard about, but not seen. The man we used to refer to as the second-best player in the world behind, well, you know who. The man who won two U.S. Opens and should probably have at least two -- if not three -- Open Championships. Instead, he has just one, won in a four-way playoff at Muirfield in 2002.

Yes, he almost won another, losing in a playoff to Todd Hamilton in 2004, but since then? Well, the Opens have served as highlights in years coming back from a knee injury.

The Big Easy has been anything but. Everyone's favorite global player, the man with a pure swing, has struggled just enough to fall to seventh in the world rankings at one point. Not horrible, just not Ernie-esqe. But last week's third-place finish at the Barclays Scottish Open pushed him to fourth in the rankings. And, well, way up the oddsmakers' boards.

"I had a nice week last week," he said of his performance at Loch Lomond. "Obviously a very different golf course we're playing this week.

"I had quite a few chances on Sunday. Actually enjoyed the round, especially when you're making birdies and stuff. Still a couple of mistakes in that round. The 16th probably cost me the tournament, bogeying that hole. But it was a nice finish. I used that new driver last week and that felt good. I'll be going out there this afternoon and seeing what it's like this week. I'm looking forward to it."

Els, who has a win, two seconds and two thirds at 21st century Opens, finished T-24 the last time the Open was held at Carnoustie, a course whose dark side was out in force that year. He finished T-24 at Turnberry in 1994, too. In fact, other than missing the cut in his first Open in 1989, his worst finish in an Open is T-34 at St. Andrews in 2005.

Which might be the key to that 10-to-1.

"For some reason ever since I came over here as an amateur, way back in '87, I've played the Links Trophy at St. Andrews and some amateur events, I just found a liking to links golf courses," Els said. "I played the great one, Woodhall Spa, and as I said, St. Andrews, Lytham, I played a lot of great courses back then. I always enjoyed it, even watching The Open Championship on television.

"I always enjoyed the way you had to play these golf courses. I think it suits a strong hitter of the ball, especially when the wind starts blowing. You've got to make good contact with the golf ball, and I think good ball-strikers have a good time around these courses."

Els is certainly that. When he's on, few players are as accurate -- even on treacherous links.

This week, he's staying a 45-minute drive away at St. Andrews. And the conditions -- on any given day -- can be as different at the two places as night and day. Tuesday morning, in fact, there was no wind at St. Andrews. It was whipping at Carnoustie, which, he said, is definitely the toughest Open venue, period.

"It's got length," he said "It's got great bunkering. You've really got to have your wits with you to play this golf course. It's probably the best bunkered course that you'll ever find anywhere in the world. I think this one and Lytham are really well bunkered, but this golf course has the length, as I say. And it seems like the wind always blows here.

". . . It seems like this course, with the weather conditions and the way that the layout is, it's a very demanding layout. You've got to play every shot in the bag. Every links shot you can think of you get tested here. It's got everything."

So, someone asked, where does Carnoustie rank in enjoyment?

"Enjoyment in a major?" Els laughed. "You enjoy a major afterwards.

"From Thursday to Sunday it's hard work. And it's going to be the same here this week. It's going to be very tough, very difficult. It's going to be a very tough test. So whether you enjoy that or not depends on where you finish, to answer that question."

His win at the South African Airways Open early in the year was his first win since the 2004 WGC-American Express Championship. And his record since? He's had five top threes (two on the PGA TOUR; three on the European PGA Tour) and nine top 10s while splitting his time -- as always -- between the two tours.

Els was relaxed Tuesday afternoon. He has a new driver, a new caddie and a new outlook. He laughed and joked. The confidence he's lacked in that knee might just be back.

Just like he said at Loch Lomond on Sunday, "I've said for a long time that I'm close. My swing feels good and the putting stroke is starting to feel better."

And this, after all, is his week. Every year. So maybe 10-to-1 isn't such a surprise.

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