Back to WorkErnie Els gets ready for his return to golf after 5 months.
Well, after five months, the waiting is finally over. This week at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, I get to make my return to competitive golf. I'm very excited and, to be honest with you, I feel really fortunate to have my health back and to be in a position to play again. As I've said a few times in some recent reports on this website, my game feels like it's in pretty nice shape. I've been working on a couple of things in my swing and just in the last couple of weeks it's started to come together. Just before I flew over to South Africa at the weekend, I was hitting balls at Queenwood and, even in the icy chill of an English winter's day my ball flight was really good and the strike felt solid. I'm not yet hitting it quite as far as I did last year, but that's to be expected. It'll come back. Then in my first practice round here at Sun City I birdied the 1st hole, hitting a driver, 9-iron approach, and draining a 20-foot putt. That made me smile!
I'd travelled here via Gardner Ross where we're building a golf course. That place is just wonderful and the golf course is coming on really nice, so that was good to see. Once I'd settled in here at Sun City I played 18 holes on Saturday, rested my leg on Sunday, and played another 18 earlier today. The knee is still a bit sore and a little swollen, so between now and the first round on Thursday I'll probably take it a little bit easier than I would at a regular tournament, maybe play just nine holes tomorrow, then it's the Pro Am on Wednesday.
Going back to what I was saying about my golf swing, I thought you might be interested to hear about some of the key points I've been working on. As always, I've been paying a lot of attention to the fundamentals, especially my posture and alignment. When you're tall like I am, it's easy for faults to creep in at address. In particular my shoulder alignment can sometimes get a little bit 'out of whack'. So I've worked really hard on getting my shoulders lined-up with my hips and toes, all parallel to the target line. Sounds a bit basic, but it's amazing what a difference that makes to the shape of your swing.
Also my posture has come in for some attention. Again, when you're tall it's easy to slip into bad habits in this area of the game, the danger is you can get a little too hunched over the ball. So I've been making sure my back is more upright, the spine angle quite erect, and also feeling that my arms are a bit closer to my chest.
That's more than half the battle for me, basically. From that improved set-up, the main thing I've been trying to do is feel like the arms stay more connected to my body on the way back, so it's more of a one-piece takeaway. Overall the feeling I'm working on is that my trunk basically controls the swing. That helps me turn my shoulders on a more level plane, rather than tilting them too much. It feels good and I think the physical training I've been doing with Josh on the upper half of my body has really helped me with this.
The end result is that coming into the ball the club is on a slightly shallower angle of attack, so I'm hitting it flush and as I said at the start of this report, getting a nice ball flight with good penetration.
The enforced lay-off I've had also gave me the chance to have a think about my putting and ways I could improve on that. In those early months after the injury it was the only thing I could work on really. Full swings were not an option. Anyway, I was watching some tapes of myself in tournament play and it looked to me that my putting posture wasn't quite right; almost that the putter was too short for me. Also I seemed to be cutting across the ball ever-so-slightly; I wasn't releasing the putter freely through towards the hole like you should.
So to rectify those things, what I've done is extend the shaft of my putter to 36-inches and that's helped me stand a little taller over the ball, with my spine straighter. And, as with my full swing, I've been developing a feeling of controlling the stroke with a turning-rocking motion of the shoulders – basically like a mini-golf swing. And already it feels a lot better, like I can release the putter through the ball and hit my putts with a lot more authority…which hopefully then leads to confidence.
Obviously it's hard to say how all of these changes will translate into tournament play, but we'll soon find out! One thing I do know is this year the golf course is in the best shape I've ever seen it. It looks fantastic.
Coming up this week...
This is my 14th appearance in the Nedbank Challenge here in Sun City since making my debut in 1992; of course, back then it used to be known as the Million Dollar Challenge. The tournament has been good to me over the years. I've won it three times, in 1999, 2000 and 2002; and I've also finished second three times, twice in playoffs. I also have the record score, 25-under par, on the way to winning six years ago. I shot 67, 66, 64 and 66 that year; I remember it well. Someone told me last week that my 14 appearances is a record, equal with Bernhard Langer and Nick Price, neither of whom is in South Africa this time around. It doesn't feel like I've played in that many, but the years fly by, don't they?
Those who are here, though, competing for the $1.2 million first prize are defending champion Retief Goosen, Luke Donald, Angel Cabrera, Darren Clarke, Kenny Perry, Chris DiMarco and Adam Scott, among others.
I said in a recent report that I actually feel pretty nervous about playing again; I've spoken to a few guys who have had a similar experience to me with not being able to play because of injury. They all said the same thing; when you come back there's that extra element of the unknown, which we're not used to. But nerves aren't a bad thing. As a professional sportsman, you get used to channelling those feelings into your performance so that they help you, not hinder you. It's all part of the game.
I'm sure a lot of you will catch up with the tournament action on television, but as usual I'll be sure to write again next Monday and give you the inside story on my first tournament appearance for 20 weeks.
Until then, bye for now.
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