sport

Els tees off in confident mood

Ernie Els begins his 2013 season at the Volvo Golf Champions in Durban on Thursday in confident mood.

There is one big difference between the Els who begins his 2013 season at the Volvo Golf Champions in Durban to the one who lost a play-off in the event to fellow South African Branden Grace last year.

Part of the 43-year-old's luggage this time is the Claret Jug - his constant reminder of an Open victory at Royal Lytham last summer that re-ignited his long and glittering career.

Asked what he remembered most about ending 10 years without a major Els said today: "There are quite a few things, but really putting my hands round the Claret Jug again.

"It's such a special trophy. I've got it here this week and I've been taking it everywhere with me - it's just a wonderful feeling to have it with you."

Another change from 12 months ago is that Els has an invitation to April's US Masters.

Last year, having fallen out of the world's top 50, he missed the trip to Augusta for the first time since his 1994 debut.

On whether it acted as a motivation for what followed the 'Big Easy' told Press Association Sport: "Not much - I was disappointed about not playing there, but I was glad they didn't invite me.

"I think those invites must go to guys at the end of their line and I felt I wasn't.

"It wasn't a case of 'hey look at this'. Not at all."

Els also has a return to Muirfield to look forward to this year. It was where his first Open triumph came in 2002 and in July it will be where he defends the cherished silver trophy.

Whether he will still be using a long putter then remains to be seen.

Unless persuaded otherwise, as seems highly unlikely, the sport's governing bodies plan to ban the anchoring of such clubs to the body from the start of 2016.

"I think the long putter has really helped me in certain aspects of putting, but I went to Johor in the middle of December and played two rounds with the short putter.

"I felt quite good. We'll see.

"A lot of guys thought it was a magic wand, but it's not - you have to put work into it. I was fortunate to win the Open Championship, making those putts on the final nine.

"There are people that want to look after the game and the future of the game and if they so feel that they need to ban it I'll go with it, but I'm definitely not for that.

"I've given my views, so they know where I'm coming from. When I make these comments it's no shock to anybody. I'm against it, but I want to honour the game, wherever it takes us."

Els partners Belgian Ryder Cup player Nicolas Colsaerts - proud possessor of his first Masters invite - in the opening round at Durban Country Club, while Scots Paul Lawrie and Colin Montgomerie are paired.

The tournament is restricted to last year's European Tour winners, past champions of the event and those with 10 or more career victories on the circuit.

Paul Casey qualifies on the last two counts. He won it Bahrain in 2011, but was unable to defend 12 months ago after breaking his collarbone snowboarding.

The former Ryder Cup player made only one halfway cut in the first five months of his comeback, but then came four top 10 finishes in a row and he is now hoping to make a big leap from his current 123rd in the world. He once stood third behind Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Robert Rock, defending champion in Abu Dhabi next week, are also among those taking part.