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Els ready for Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond (Scotland): Fresh from a fortnight’s break, Ernie Els is in confident mood as he prepares for this week’s Scottish Open and the defence of his British Open title at Royal St George’s in nine days.

The world No. 2, who has not played tournament golf since tying for 11th at last month’s Buick Classic in the United States, has always enjoyed the picturesque Loch Lomond layout, where he triumphed in 2000.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, even more so if the weather turns out to be good,” South African Els said on his official website.

“It’s one of the most immaculately prepared golf courses we play, anywhere in the world. It really is that good.”

Twice US Open champion Els heads a high-quality field for this week’s European Tour stop, which starts on Thursday and offers $3.61 million in prize money.

However, he will not have fond memories of last year’s event.

In rain-sodden conditions, he fluctuated between scores of 68, 74, 69 and 72 on his way to a share of 50th place. But his game then dovetailed the following week at Muirfield, where he clinched the 131st British Open in a four-way playoff.

“Last year, unfortunately, I played quite poorly here ... despite opening with a 68,” said the 33-year-old Els. “For the rest of the week my iron play, in particular, was a real struggle — not exactly what you look for in the build-up to an (British) Open.

“But, as it turned out, it made no difference to how I played at Muirfield the following week.

“Twelve months on, my game is in a lot better shape and I hope to put in a strong performance. Having had two weeks off, I’m feeling fresh and raring to go.”

Els is one of seven former Major winners in this week’s field, which is the strongest in Europe this year with the exception of the British Open.

The others are 2001 US Open winner Retief Goosen, 1985 British Open champion Sandy Lyle, former Masters winners Jose Maria Olazabal and Fred Couples, 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman, and big-hitting John Daly, who won the 1991 US PGA Championship and the 1995 British Open.

Smooth-swinging Couples, one of several Americans using this week to acclimatise and prepare for the British Open, will be making his first Scottish Open appearance. “I have heard so many great things about Loch Lomond, and about the tournament, that I am really looking forward to experiencing the magic for myself,” said the 1992 US Masters champion.

The laid-back Couples, who won this season’s Houston Open for his first US title in nearly five years, is certain to be a major attraction at Loch Lomond.

Although the 43-year-old Californian has been suffering back trouble for several seasons, he has produced six top-15 finishes on the 2003 PGA Tour and lies 17th in the US money list.

Other Americans in action this week include world No. 8 Phil Mickelson, Chad Campbell, Ben Crane, Tim Petrovic, John Rollins, Fred Funk and newly turned professional Ricky Barnes, who shone as an amateur at this year’s US Masters.

Apart from 2000 champion Els, there are six other former Loch Lomond winners in the field — Goosen (2001), Colin Montgomerie (1999), Lee Westwood (1998), Lehman (1997), Thomas Bjorn (1996) and defending champion Eduardo Romero.

Apart from this week’s title, there is added incentive at Loch Lomond with British Open places on offer for 15 players not otherwise exempt. (Reuters)

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