Els goes soft on schedule

From Brian Keogh in Dubai

Ernie Els has taken a longer winter break than normal this year and reduced his global travelling arrangements to remain as fresh as possible for the season's major examinations.

Yet as the 38-year-old South African struck the opening drive on his first course design in the Middle East - The Els Club at Dubai Sports City - his nemesis Tiger Woods was winging his way across 20 time zones with his 62nd PGA Tour victory on his CV.

Like the rest of the golfing world, Els just can't escape the Tiger factor and while he manfully put forward the name of Adam Scott as one the players most likely to challenge the world number one's supremacy, you could sense a "but" in the sentence.

"A lot of guys in their late 20s and early 30s are certainly coming to the fore right now," said Els in reference to 27 year old Scott's closing 61 in Qatar. "But Tiger still has the best mind in golf and he has no rival when it comes to his short game. Even if he makes mistakes, he has the ability to sink those mile long putts as we saw yesterday in winning the Buick."

The he added: "Tiger is always on a hot streak whether he's winning or not and he is obviously on a hot streak again. I didn't see the golf last night but I watched Adam Scott winning in Qatar and shooting 61 so the boys are firing low and very early in the season."

Els hasn't played a tournament round for six weeks and it remains to be seen if he can continue his remarkable record in Dubai, where he has won three times and never finished out of the top ten.

Yet the Big Easy confessed that his goal is not to bloom in the desert but amongst the azaleas of Augusta National in April.

"Hopefully I will be on form by then," he said, before playing an exhibition with a host of stars representing the different sports that will be catered for at the Dubai Sports City - tennis great Martina Navratilova, footballer Peter Schmeichel, England cricketer Andrew Flintoff and Springbok rugby skipper John Smit.

"I have my schedule a little softer this year compared to other years so that I can concentrate more on the Majors. I will be spending more time at home in London with the kids and doing the school run."

The school run no longer concerns Rory McIlroy, who will be closely watched this week following his whirlwind start to his professional career.

And while Els has not yet played with his 18-year-old stablemate at International Sports Management, he predicts great things for the new world 190.

Els said: "I haven't had a chance to play with Rory yet. But he's going to be a real star, isn't he? From what I have seen, he has a great swing and all the tools you need to be a really great player. He's certainly not afraid of anyone."

Whatever about the Woods factor, Els badly wants to add the Masters to his two US Opens and that 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield.

But according to two-time major champion and former Dubai Desert Classic winner Mark O'Meara, Open champion Padraig Harrington is more than capable of slipping into a green coat.

"It is only going to help Padraig for Augusta and the other Major Championships now that he has won a first Major," O'Meara said. "Having the confidence to know that you've done it one time is enough for it to happen again.

"Padraig has always been a player who had Major winner stamped on him because he's a grinder and that's what takes to win a Major. It also takes a good short game and Padraig around the greens is very good.

"He's also got that ‘never give up attitude' and doesn't seem to get too high or too low but he stays pretty even-keeled on the course plus he's very methodical and that helps win a Major.

"So can he win a green jacket? Yes, I think he can win at Augusta and we've seen that he has played relatively well in the Masters.

"He's making good strides in that direction, but Augusta all comes down to putting well."