Easy Does it in Saudi

Ernie Els on Saudi Ara­bia’s new Euro­pean Tour event and tam­ing Tiger at the Pres­i­dents Cup

Golf Digest Middle East - - Contents -

Ernie Els on Saudi’s new Euro­pean Tour venue.

“This event is not only go­ing to be great for the Euro­pean Tour but it will be great for world golf.”

Ernie Els added his con­sid­er­able celebrity to the of­fi­cial open­ing of Royal Greens Golf & Coun­try Club last month, with more than a lit­tle help from Bri­tish fan favourite Andrew ‘Beef’ John­ston. We sat down with the four-time ma­jor cham­pion for his take on the Euro­pean Tour’s big play in Saudi, the sim­i­lar­i­ties he can see with golf’s growth ex­plo­sion in Dubai and dis­cover the South African leg­end’s plans to over­come Tiger Woods and Team USA at next year’s Pres­i­dents Cup at Royal Mel­bourne.

Tell us about your first ex­pe­ri­ence of Saudi Ara­bia?

I was re­ally ex­cited to get the call to come here. I’ve heard of King Ab­dulla Eco­nomic City through the years now, and I was keen to come and see what they have done. This is ob­vi­ously the in­au­gu­ral golf course open­ing here, at Royal Greens. I wouldn’t say I’m sur­prised but I’m re­ally glad I came be­cause I re­ally think they got it right. The golf course is re­ally good, they have a great fa­cil­ity here at Royal Greens. It’s a won­der­ful spot. I’m glad I came.

What’s your take on the new course and its sig­na­ture holes?

You start out here at the club­house and you play a bit of desert golf, so to speak, with quite a few water haz­ards. They have a great bal­ance through the course – right to lefts and left to rights – but the real treat is when you get out to 16, the won­der­ful 16th hole on the Red Sea. You think you’re on some is­land some­where in the Caribbean with the water colour and the con­trast. It’s won­der­ful, and it’s a pretty dif­fi­cult hole. So the back nine is re­ally pic­turesque but so is the whole of golf course. You don’t see too many holes where you ac­tu­ally go out to the ocean, so I thought that [the 16th] was a great ad­di­tion to the course.

How do you feel the course will stack up against other Euro­pean Tour venues next year?

Well, I think this one will be one of the best in the Mid­dle East. I’ve played most of the cour­ses in the Mid­dle East from Dubai to Qatar to Abu Dhabi. I haven’t played Oman but this golf course here will be one of the play­ers’ favourites. The greens can be quite tricky, as you can see here, the wind picks up in the af­ter­noon which will make the scor­ing quite tough. But it is a fun golf course, if you play prop­erly I think you can make some birdies and there’s enough el­e­ments out there that will keep the guys hon­est. Your wind play will have to be there and your course man­age­ment has to be there. Won­der­ful golf course, I’m look­ing for­ward to play­ing it.

How im­por­tant is it for golf to em­brace new mar­kets like Saudi Ara­bia?

This event is not only go­ing to be great for the Euro­pean Tour but it will great for world golf. We need places where we can grow the game, where we can start from grass root lev­els and in­tro­duce the game to new mar­kets and this is an ab­so­lutely un­touched mar­ket through the his­tory of Saudi Ara­bia. This will be the in­au­gu­ral event and to bring world class play­ers here, to Royal Greens in Saudi Ara­bia, is just go­ing to be a game- changer. This fa­cil­ity is won­der­ful but they are go­ing to be build­ing schools here, they’re go­ing to be build­ing hous­ing fa­cil­i­ties, ho­tels – it’s go­ing to be an ab­so­lute un­be­liev­able city and to have golf as your main sport here, for the kids to grow up around the game, is go­ing to be so im­por­tant and I won’t be sur­prised when we see some world class play­ers in the near-fu­ture.

How does Saudi today com­pare to what you saw back in 1993 when you played your first Desert Clas­sic?

Yeah, there are many sim­i­lar­i­ties. My first event in the Mid­dle East was in 1993. I had a won­der­ful time in Dubai. If you told me in 1993 what I would be look­ing at now in 2018 in Dubai, I would say you’re crazy. So I have seen what peo­ple can do here in the Mid­dle East. They re­ally can make changes very quickly and I can see the same here. The in­fra­struc­ture is in, the roads and the power in this place is ready to ex­plode. Hang on to your boots. In only a few years’ time you are go­ing to see a very dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment and they’ve done their home­work, so I re­ally feel very pos­i­tive for the re­gion.

The na­tional team will have ac­cess to your per­for­mance academy as part of the agree­ment be­tween Royal Greens and the Saudi Golf Fed­er­a­tion. How im­por­tant is it for that young tal­ent to have ac­cess to a fa­cil­ity like this?

I’ve al­ways said, we’re a small coun­try in South Africa but we have pro­duced re­ally good golfers for a very long time. When you have fa­cil­i­ties and you have weather, you are al­ready ahead of the game in a lot of ar­eas. You just have to look at Europe; you can only play in some places there for only four, five, six months of the year. So here you have year round weather, you have an un­be­liev­able fa-

cil­ity here at Royal Greens, at this academy, and if you have more of these fa­cil­i­ties go up around this area, with the school­ing in place here - be­fore golf or af­ter golf the kids can come and play and prac­tice golf – it is just the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to pro­duce world­class golfers.

You’re a three-time win­ner of the Dubai Desert Clas­sic and hold the course record there. Is there a spe­cialty to play­ing golf here in the Mid­dle East?

It’s just a great place to come, nor­mally we play the mid­dle eastern swing in Jan­uary, Fe­bru­ary, or March and where else in the world are you go­ing to get weather like this? So just your mind­set go­ing into the Mid­dle East, you know you are go­ing to play on good con­di­tion golf cour­ses and the weather is go­ing to be won­der­ful. I just al­ways felt com­fort­able play­ing in this re­gion, and ob­vi­ously the golf cour­ses suited me and I just had a great time. I can’t see this place chang­ing my view at all, I loved play­ing here and I would love to come back – I’m get­ting a lit­tle older now, I’ll be 49 this year but it’s just a great place to play golf.

We have some in­ter­est­ing ma­jor venues on the hori­zon with Shin­necock Hills and Carnoustie. What do you think it’s go­ing to take to win around those cour­ses in par­tic­u­lar?

Let’s take Shin­necock – it can be blus­tery like here, con­di­tions can change quite rapidly out there on the is­land. I think long is­land goes out there about 80 miles from the city, so you’re ba­si­cally in the ocean with a great golf course. A linksy style of golf will be re­quired there. Then ob­vi­ously with the USGA, the way they set up golf cour­ses, they set them up the hard­est of any of the Ma­jors, so you have to bring your all round game: your men­tal game, your phys­i­cal game and then you have to have a lit­tle bit of luck here and there. It’s a great venue, it’s a real tra­di­tional type of Ma­jor, you could play a Bri­tish Open there or a US Open there, you can play any type of event out there in Shin­necock, it is one of the great clas­sic cour­ses so it will de­liver a great cham­pion.

And Carnoustie? Ob­vi­ously just as dif­fi­cult?

Yeah, Carnoustie is the tough­est course on the Open rota. I can’t think any other tougher links I have ever played. If the weather gets tough, you saw what hap­pened in 1999, over par wins very eas­ily around Carnoustie. The bunker­ing is in­cred­i­ble - the course was built when­ever it was and those bunkers are still in play. It has got ev­ery­thing you need from a Ma­jor Cham­pi­onship venue – length, strate­gic bunker­ing, weather, a great his­tory, and a list of great cham­pi­ons.

We’re bound to hear the crit­i­cism around the U.S. Open about the golf course be­ing too hard, in tan­dem with the ar­gu­ment that equip­ment is mak­ing golf too easy. Do you think the U.S. Open is a good ex­am­ple of how golf can be reigned by cour­ses rather than what man­u­fac­tur­ers are do­ing?

The golf ball, the clubs and the ath­letes we see these days are all just get­ting bet­ter. I don’t see any rea­son to change, you’ll see when we get to a tough con­di­tion golf course when the course is play­ing firm, the rough is up, and we have a bit of wind, I don’t care if you have su­per­sonic equip­ment, the game of golf is a pretty tough game. I think the dis­tance in the game is largely be­cause of the con­di­tion of these ath­letes. They are swing­ing the club a lot faster than we did in our day and I think that is just a gen­era- tional change that is hap­pen­ing. I think to move a tee back here and there for us, the pros, I don’t think that is the big­gest thing in the world. I think we can do that, we don’t have to change cour­ses com­pletely. We will see when we have tough con­di­tions at the U.S. Open and Open cham­pi­onship, hope­fully we don’t have to keep talk­ing about how far the golf ball is go­ing. If you’re play­ing in per­fect con­di­tion in the U.S., yes, there is a huge ben­e­fit you get from hit­ting the ball longer than any­one else but you still have to put the golf ball in play so the game of golf is in good hands.

Grow­ing up in South Africa, is The Open the one you were on the prac­tice green as a kid think­ing ‘this putt is for the Claret Jug’?

The Open has al­ways been my favourite, largely be­cause of the time change from Great Bri­tain down to South Africa. There is vir­tu­ally no time change, so you could ac­tu­ally sit on your couch and watch the golf live dur­ing the day. So I al­ways watched the Open cham­pi­onship. I re­mem­ber the days when Tom Wat­son was dom­i­nat­ing, Seve’s win in ’88, that won­der­ful win in Lytham and so many won­der­ful cham­pi­ons. And for some rea­son, I al­ways felt com­fort­able on links land. I grew up in Jo­han­nes­burg which is very Park­lan­dish and you have to put the ball in the air and ob­vi­ously links is to­tally dif­fer­ent but for some rea­son I was very com­fort­able and al­ways just loved play­ing on links land. In 2012, we were work­ing hard on the swing that year but it’s in­cred­i­ble the jour­ney that it takes you through. It’s a 4-day event, the prepa­ra­tion that goes in and then you have to get lucky and get breaks go­ing your way. My good friend, Scotty, ob­vi­ously had a ter­ri­ble fin­ish and ba­si­cally handed me the tro­phy but then as the golf­ing gods will

“I think Tiger and I will bring an ex­tra el­e­ment to the matches and hope­fully make it re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

be, he won the Mas­ters the very next year, which was re­ally won­der­ful. I think I cel­e­brated more for that one than he did him­self.

Do you think the game is in good hands with the gag­gle of ex­cel­lent young play­ers com­ing through?

Ab­so­lutely, I think that the gen­er­a­tion has just flipped over. It seems like our gen­er­a­tion has been around a long time, for 20 odd years. There was a mid­dle gen­er­a­tion with Ser­gio Gar­cia and Adam Scott and some of those guys but they had to con­tend in the Tiger era and Tiger was such a dom­i­nat­ing player. So for 20 years there wasn’t re­ally a change over. And I feel now there are 10 young guys that are re­ally go­ing to dom­i­nate the game go­ing for­ward and they’re go­ing to have a lot of fun do­ing that. They seem like they’re good friends, which I don’t al­ways agree with. I feel like you have got to be very com­pet­i­tive, which they are, but it’s very friendly at the mo­ment. Be­side that, they are a talented group of play­ers and they are win­ning Ma­jor Cham­pi­onships and they are sep­a­rat­ing them­selves from the rest. That group is go­ing to take the game for­ward and I think they’re a won­der­ful group of guys to be watch­ing.

Is there any­one in par­tic­u­lar that you want to pick out?

Ob­vi­ously, Justin Thomas. The year he had last year was a ca­reer year right there. Win­ning the FedEx Cup, shoot­ing 59, win­ning a Ma­jor, win­ning some other tour­na­ment, I think four or five times. Then ob­vi­ously Jor­dan Spi­eth, win­ning his 3rd or 4th Ma­jor now, be­com­ing No.1 in the world al­ready and he’s only 24 years old. You have Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, and you have Rory McIl­roy whose the elder state­man at 28, my good­ness. So there are just so many of them, and Pa­trick Reed win­ning at the other day at the Mas­ters. Won­der­ful, won­der­ful group of play­ers.

How im­pressed have you been with Tiger’s come­back?

I’m happy with what I’m see­ing. I can see the joy in his eyes again. He went through a very tough time there for a long time, on and off the course. To see him happy and to see him swing the club how he wants to af­ter all these in­juries and I am re­ally happy for him. And I be­lieve he has a Ma­jor in him, no doubt in my mind he is ca­pa­ble of it. He has the tal­ent, he just has to find the right venue and he can do it, there’s no doubt. A lot of ex­cit­ing golf ahead. He’s 42. I think that’s the magic num­ber in your 40’s to start win­ning Ma­jors again – Ben Ho­gan, Mark O’Meara, Phil Mick­el­son my­self, Dar­ren Clarke, I think Ray Floyd was 42, Payne Stewart was 41, so if we can do it, he can do it. I’m look­ing for­ward to some good golf.

We’re look­ing for­ward a land­mark Pres­i­dents Cup with your­self and Tiger as cap­tains. Do you think that will bring an added el­e­ment, given both of your pro­files?

We’ve made some changes al­ready and I want to try and have a blue­print go­ing for­ward for the next [In­ter­na­tional team] guys, re­ally change things up and put things in place where the next cap­tain can keep fol­low­ing the blue­print. It’s a very im­por­tant time for my­self and the team to change things up, to be re­ally com­pet­i­tive and win this Pres­i­dents Cup in Aus­tralia, which is a great venue for us. But Tiger’s got an un­be­liev­able team and he’s been an un­be­liev­able player and I think the two of us, we’ve had a bit of his­tory in the Pres­i­dents Cup. I think we will bring an ex­tra el­e­ment to the matches and hope­fully make it re­ally ex­cit­ing.

Do you have a for­mula for suc­cess or a spe­cial strat­egy?

Yeah I have some­thing in my mind, and I want the guys to buy into it and luck­ily we have a lot of time be­fore the end of next year when the Pres­i­dents Cup is be­ing played in Mel­bourne. So I’m work­ing with the guys, and get­ting them to hope­fully buy into a lot of the stuff that I want to im­ple­ment, and we will see how it goes. But I feel like there will be some big changes and hope­fully it will work and win the Pres­i­dent’s Cup.

How will your cap­taincy style con­trast against what you think Tiger will bring?

I think it’ll be very sim­i­lar. I knew how to play match­play, I won the world match­play seven times and my record in the Pres­i­dents Cup is not ter­ri­ble. So I have a way of play­ing match­play but I want to bring other things. We have a very di­verse team with na­tion­al­i­ties all over the world. I want to make sure all my guys are com­fort­able, the way they want to be com­fort­able and not the way I want them to be com­fort­able.It has got to be a great ex­pe­ri­ence for them. And then the strat­egy we need to im­ple­ment to try and win the tour­na­ment; I’ve got a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence around the golf course we are go­ing to com­pete on. But there is a lot in­put I can give the guys, I want to do that and hope­fully I can take it in.

I’m sure you are very busy with the Pres­i­dents Cup and the busi­ness but what else have you got com­ing up?

I’m start­ing to play a lit­tle bet­ter my­self, I feel phys­i­cally a lot bet­ter than I have in the last 18 months, so I still want to try and be com­pet­i­tive. I got an in­vite to the U.S. Open, which is great. Ob­vi­ously the Open Cham­pi­onship too and we will see where it goes. I want try and feel like I’m com­pet­i­tive and take my game into the Cham­pi­ons Tour.

“You think you’re on some is­land some­where in the Caribbean with the water colour and the con­trast.”

Els holds court dur­ing a clinic at the of­fi­cial open­ing of Royal Greens Golf & Coun­try Club. With Tiger Woods ( right) at a Pres­i­dents Cup presser.

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