LUSS, Scotland (AP) — Ernie Els arrived at Loch Lomond having played some of his best golf of the year, including one round when he made seven birdies and three eagles to win the top prize.
Too bad it didn’t count.
Stunned by missing the cut in the U.S. Open, the Big Easy retreated to his home outside London and played social golf with friends the last few weeks. It included that blockbuster round at Queenwood that allowed him to beat three friends, one of them the club champion.
“I wish I could bring my social golf on to the tournament schedule,” Els said Wednesday.
He gets back to tournament play at the Scottish Open, the first of two important weeks for the 39-year-old South African. Els has won twice at Loch Lomond, one of his favorite tournaments on the European Tour schedule. He has finished in the top three five times at the British Open this decade, including his 2002 victory at Muirfield.
What to expect? Not even he is sure.
“Form-wise, professionally, hasn’t been a great year,” Els said. “You guys know that. I know that. But this is a nice time of the year for me, especially with the Open coming up and this week, so looking to turn things around.”
The Barclays Scottish Open is the final tournament before the British Open at Turnberry, although most don’t classify it as a tuneup.
Loch Lomond is an American-styled course along the shores of a splendid lake north of Glasgow. The turf is soft and green, with fairways lined by trees and water in play on several holes, obstacles that are rare in links golf.
Even so, it has attracted another strong field.
Graeme McDowell is the defending champion, and among those competing are a solid contingent of U.S. tour regulars – Geoff Ogilvy, Camilo Villegas, Brian Gay, Nick Watney, Rory Sabbatini and Boo Weekley, who made this stunning observation about his first impression of Loch Lomond when he played two years ago.
“I take it y’all get a lot of rain over here,” he said.
It hasn’t exactly been pouring victories for Els no matter where he travels.
He’s gone 36 tournaments since his last victory on the PGA Tour in March 2008 at the Honda Classic. He says his desire has never been stronger, even for a guy who has been going at it for 20 years.
Then again, that might be the problem.
“In some ways, I’ve been searching maybe a little too much for the perfect swing, the perfect putting stroke, the perfect driving, stuff like that,” Els said. “And maybe I’m not different than any other player. But I feel like I definitely have the drive and the desire to win more tournaments, and that’s why I’m still trying. I don’t know when that will ever go. If it does, I’ll probably walk away.
“But right now, I’m still very, very dedicated to my sport and trying to win golf tournaments.”
It would be easy to suggest that Els is more distracted at this stage in his career. He is doing is part to promote awareness for autism since disclosing last year that his 6-year-old son, Ben, has the illness. His golf course design business is growing, along with his South African wines. Still, golf remains his priority.
“Why do I still love it? I can’t answer that,” Els said. “It’s been in my blood. It’s been what I’ve always done. It’s just always been there, and I still try and improve. I still watch golf even on television, so it’s a mad drug.”
Colin Montgomerie is still trying, too, even if he winced when reminded that it has been 10 years since he won the Scottish Open. Perhaps an even more painful reminder is that a week later, a Scot won the British Open – Paul Lawrie.
The 46-year-old Montgomerie has not had a top 10 in the last calendar year, 25 starts dating to the French Open a year ago. Consumed with details as European captain of the 2010 Ryder Cup, he saw a glimmer of hope last week in France when he tied for 13th. That enabled him to move up to No. 200 in the world ranking.
Ten years ago, he still harbored hopes of being No. 1 in the world.
“My best year, with six wins,” Montgomerie said of the ’99 season. “And I’d love to emulate something like that. But as you all probably know, I haven’t had a top 10 for a year now in Europe, and it’s about time that changed. So we look forward to trying to change it here.”