Els Blog: Let the Major season begin

Thu 03 Apr 2014

Els Blog: Let the Major season begin

  • SHARE
April 3: It’s hard to believe that it’s 25 years since I made my debut in the major championships. It was the 1989 Open at Royal Troon and the experience is pretty fresh in my mind.
I was just 19-years old, giving it a rip with a beautiful old persimmon driver, and wouldn’t turn professional until later that year. I played some links golf before then – and loved it – but the combination of links golf and the Open Championship…well, that was very special. It still is.
All the majors are very special, though, and I say that as someone who has played in 83 of them. They’re still the tournaments that drive me, make me want to keep working hard on my game, keep pushing myself in the gym, keep packing a suitcase and jumping on another plane. And it’s just around this time of the year when you can’t help but look ahead to each of the venues and get excited.
Of course, the major season tees off this month with the Masters at Augusta National, which is the only major we play at the same golf course every year. Not that it ever gets old. You feel a buzz when you arrive here and the butterflies start to dance around in your stomach.
In my mind, Gary and Augusta National will always have a strong connection. We played a practice round together in 2007, which was the year of his 50th Masters appearance, and he was just so excited to be out there. That’s what Augusta National does to you. You talk to the champions from 20, 30, even 40 years ago and they all say how much it means to them to keep coming back every year. I remember thinking how cool it would be to play this wonderful tournament for half-a-century, just like Gary did. Amazing.
My mind also goes back to 1978 when Gary won his third Masters. Me and my dad were sat up late into the night back home in South Africa, watching on television as Gary holed that putt on the 18th and punched the air, then Seve rushing across the green to give him a bear hug. He looked almost as happy as Gary. What a moment.
It’s one of my standout early golfing memories and it had a big impact; it made me want to follow in his footsteps and be a great champion and a major winner. Happily I’ve managed to emulate something of what Gary achieved, winning four majors, and hopefully I’m not done yet.
This year is actually my 20th appearance in the Masters and although it looks much the same on television, you wouldn’t believe how different this golf course plays now compared to the one we used to play in the mid-90s. Augusta used to be the most fun of all the major venues. Now, it’s probably the toughest all-round test of golf in the world.
How tough? Well, a few years ago Golf Digest magazine estimated that Augusta National had a course rating for a scratch player of around 78. Look at it another way – if a guy wins here and gets into double-digits under-par, he’s probably playing to the equivalent of a plus-10 handicap every day for the entire week. That’s nice going, obviously.
The length of the course is the most obvious change. Since my debut in 1994 it’s been stretched from around 6,900 yards to almost 7,500 and that means on some holes we’re now hitting different clubs into greens and taking different lines off a lot of the tees.
Other course changes are subtle and they’re executed so beautifully that sometimes you have to look twice to see what they’ve done. The powers-that-be at Augusta might add a tree or two, pinch-in a fairway, tweak a green here or there. They’re masters of the seamless renovation.
Although the rough is not as high as at other majors, it’s a significant strategic factor because the greens are firm and massively undulating, so you need to be hitting your approach shots off the fairway to get maximum control of your golf ball.
There are holes when you can attack and there are birdie and eagle opportunities out there, but you have to choose your moments wisely and you’d better execute properly. A lot of the time you’re not actually aiming at flags, but safe spots on the greens. That’s why you hear a lot of players talking about ‘being patient’. Trust me, you need a lot of patience to do well at Augusta, but then again you need a lot of everything; it really does test every facet of your game and your mind.
Ultimately, nowhere else is there such a fine line between making a birdie or a bogey…or worse. It can break your heart, this place. But it’s impossible not to love it. There’s only one Augusta National.
Ends