Els emerges as Desert Classic favorite

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Armed with a new putter at a familiar venue, Ernie Els is hoping the Dubai Desert Classic will boost his ranking and provide him with a much needed win.

With Tiger Woods still recovering from knee surgery, Els is favored to win the tournament, which begins Thursday at the Majlis course at Emirates Golf Club.

Now No. 12 in the world, the 39-year-old South African is the only three-time champion of the Dubai Desert Classic, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Els' worst finish in the last eight years came in 2008, when he tied for third.

``I'm playing OK, but I'm not scoring very well,'' Els said Wednesday. ``I played pretty well at Mercedes event in Hawaii, but ... I think I put a little bit of doubt in my head. The last couple weeks I haven't been very comfortable on the greens.

``I'm looking at a new putter this week, and I've been working quite hard on my putting,'' Els added. ``Hopefully, I can get that straightened out and have a good week.''

Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Robert Karlsson and Lee Westwood are also in the field.

Despite the absence of Woods, the tournament's defending champion, Els said he expected the American to continue dominating the game when he returns.

``When he starts playing in March, I don't think you'll see a much different Tiger,'' said Els, who had his own knee surgery in 2007. ``He won the U.S. Open on one leg. He's pretty talented, so I think he'll be OK. And knowing him, he will be as strong as ever.

``Obviously, putting a knife into your body is going to weaken some points, but the knee itself is going to be as strong as it was,'' Els said. ``The initial practice sessions, for maybe a month or two, you will be keeping your weight a little bit off it. ... I think your brain and your body need to kind of connect there.''

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