Els one of great links golfers of his time

Ernie Els hits a shot at the J.P. McManus Invitational.

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Endless are the slices of flavor that separate the British Open from all other golf tournaments. For example: The sight of Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson playing the 18th hole at St. Andrews in a practice round Monday while a steady flow of folks going to, or coming from, dinner stopped to watch.

It was, after all, nearly 8 p.m., and still the sun was shining and the warmth flowing forth.

Watson is making his second British Open appearance, Fowler his first, and each American had arrived only hours earlier aboard a charter from the John Deere Classic in Illinois.

Sleep was probably the prudent order of business, but it was no match for the aura of St. Andrews. So into the mystical environment ventured the two Americans.

As if the double greens, cool winds, devilish bunkers and confounding sight lines didn’t provide enough spice, Fowler and Watson added even more. On several occasions, they moved to the other side of the plate – Fowler hitting shots lefthanded, Watson righthanded.

“It was just something to have fun,” Fowler said.

It was at the 18th when the biggest gallery gathered, many of those watching perhaps out of curiousity as to who might still be engaged in the business of golf at such a late hour. When Watson, a powerful lefthander, turned around and from 85 yards hit a low, feathery wedge righthanded to 18 feet of the hole, there was polite applause. Fowler’s lefthanded shot was less successful – a topped shot that rolled perhaps 45 yards – but the appreciation for what was going on seemed no less genuine.

Players having fun tackling a style of golf that is irresistible.

Oh, it may be confounding at times, borderline impossible when the wind howls, and surely there are countless examples of strange obstacles to bizarre holes, but make no mistake about it: The passion for links golf runs deep, even with the world’s best players.

“This is where the game started. This is the original way the game was played,” Ernie Els said.

Ah, Els. In a field of 156 players where you have glimpses of unheralded chaps – from Jamie Abbott to Mark Haastrup to a pair of Odas from Japan, Koumei and Ryuichi – the presence of the big South African is a reminder of how great this championship is.

Certainly, no one possesses an appreciation of the Open Championship and the style of golf it demands quite like Els. Took to it right away, in fact, back to when, as a 17-year-old, he saw St. Andrews for the first time.

What he can’t do is explain why, however.

“I grew up in Johannesburg,” Els said, “where the closest thing to a links golf course is the M3 highway. We didn’t know anything about links golf.”

Yet here he is at St. Andrews, prepared for his 20th Open Championship, and it could be argued that he’s the most polished links golfer of his generation. OK, he trails Tiger Woods in Claret Jugs, 3-1, and has won one fewer than Padraig Harrington, but there is so much more to it than that. For nine consecutive cold Octobers (1992-2000), Els represented South Africa in the Dunhill Cup here, twice he helped a victory, and now that it’s an individual pro-am called the Dunhill Links Championship, The Big Easy is an annual RSVP.

“I just fell in love with the place,” Els said, recalling that time in 1987. “I didn’t know where to go (in St. Andrews), but I loved it.”

Edged by Tom Lehman at Lytham in 1996, overmatched by Woods at St. Andrews in 2000, and disheartened by his playoff loss to Todd Hamilton at Troon in 2004, Els has nonetheless filled his memory mug with nothing but precious embraces with this links business. He has done so, Chubby Chandler said, by employing an ability to hit creative shots that are uncoachable imagination.

The head of International Sports Management, Chandler serves as Els’ manager. But as a onetime European PGA Tour player who twice took part in Open Championships here at the Old Course, Chandler also stands behind Els and admires the man’s talent.

“He hit a shot (earlier Tuesday) at the 17th that I’d never seen anyone hit,” Chandler said. “It was a 4-iron that ran forever and was incredible. He can hit it through the wind, but it’s a ball that still lands softly.”

Victorious in a playoff at Muirfield in 2002, Els thus earned perpetual standing among distinguished golfers who have mastered both the U.S. Open and British Open. That is no small feat, for if you want to suggest that only the truly great players figure out how to excel at links golf, you’d find an ally in Els.

“I just feel if you want to be a world-class player, I think you’ve got to do something on links golf,” he said.

It is no different than in tennis, where the greats are asked to succeed on grass and clay, which is why Andre Agassi rates above John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. By winning two U.S. Opens through the air and one Claret Jug along the ground, Els is alongside the likes of Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Woods.

Lofty stuff, no doubt, though Els is hardly prepared to submit his resume to closure. At 40, he feels he’s as prepared to win this Open Championship as ever before. In fact, just last month he was in position to conquer a third U.S. Open, his Sunday charge looking so promising until he made double-bogey at the 10th, then bogeyed the 11th.

Deflated, Els never stopped for members of the media and he felt he needed to make amends.

“I was pretty hot under the collar, but I got out of there. I was pretty annoyed with myself. I just felt very disappointed there . . . I just self-destructed a little bit. I apologize for not being able to talk to you there.”

Major heartache, no doubt, but it’s not like Els hasn’t been there before. He’ll deal with it, because he’s also back where he feels most comfortable, embraced by an incomparable friend – links golf.

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