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A Quick 9: Ernie Els

Titleist ambassador Ernie Els returns to action this week after being sidelined for nearly 5 months following knee surgery. The world's fifth-ranked golfer will compete at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in his home country of South Africa, a tournament he's won three times. We caught up with Ernie for a Quick 9 as he prepared for this week's event ...

1. You will be teeing it up in competition for the first time since injuring your knee in July. How do you feel physically and mentally heading into the Nedbank Golf Challenge this week?
Well, after five months, the waiting is finally over. 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. 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. I played over the weekend and my ball flight is 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. 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!

2. You mentioned you have been working on a couple things in your swing. Anything specific?
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. 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. 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 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 getting a nice ball flight with good penetration.

3. You also altered the length of your putter. What was the reason for that?
Well, I was at Scotty's (Cameron) new facility in California recently and he put me on a bunch of computers and really helped my putting. We found that I was using a putter that was too short so my body was too far over the ball which was making (the arch) my putter go from out to out. We worked on that and I went to a 36-inch putter and it feels much better now. 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. I feel 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!

4. You mentioned the physical training you have been doing. How important do you feel it is to workout and stay fit to play better golf?
Fitness has become so important. I do all my work away from the golf course so when I get to the course I can just concentrate on my play and practice. Your practice shouldn't be your workout. You should be working out away from the course to get yourself fit and strong. I've had a couple of trainers in the last seven years or so and they all had one thing in common - trying to boost my energy levels by having me focus on cardio. I'm a big guy so I've got to work on keeping my weight in check. The lighter I am, the more energy I have. In the offeseason, when I go into hybernation, that's when I tend to get the weight up. You have to keep the weight down, stretching is important, and keep the core strong which will help you with your back. The golf swing shouldn't give you any back problems. It should be a pretty smooth motion, nothing like football, baseball or basketball. Golf is quite healthy for the body if you do things properly. Keep the core strong and do a lot of flexibility exercises and you should be okay.

5. What about hydration and nutrition during a round?
My first few years on TOUR, I don't think I was very into the fitness and nutrition, but I've definitely learned how important they both are. We play in so many different conditions - from the extreme heat around U.S. Open time in June to the British Open where it could be 50 degrees. You have to stay hydrated. Water is very important. When your mouth goes dry, it's already too late. Another thing I've learned is not to have huge meals before you go out and play. You'll feel bloated and you'll lose energy quicker. Have small little meals, small portions of food, throughout the day and then just have quick bites during the round. You'll have more energy that way.

6. You play in many pro-ams during the course of the year. What's the main swing fault you see with amateurs and what advice would you give them to correct it?
Obviously playing in the pro-am is a big day for the amateur. It's just a normal day at the office for us, so we don't feel the stress that they do, but I guess what they feel is similar to what we feel on a Sunday afternoon in the heat of the battle. On the first tee, they're quite nervous as you would expect. You see their white knuckles from gripping the club so tight and they're pretty tight in their arms and shoulders. Everything kind of stiffens up and there's no flexibility in their body or the swing. After a few holes when they start to calm down and you can see how they really swing, that's when you can help them. The most obvious fault is they underclub. They always think they're hitting the ball further and then they start to force the shot. They don't just make their normal swing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given the advice to ‘just slow it down a bit, concentrate on good balance and making a solid strike into the back of the ball’.

7. What do you consider the best round of your career?
No question, the 60 I shot in the first round of the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne in 2004. It was one of those days where my swing felt great on the range and I just carried it on to the golf course. It was perfect, the sort of day I didn’t want to end. I was 12-under after 14 and things are starting to go off in my head! The challenge at the end was simple; play the last two holes in 1-under to shoot 59. I gave myself a couple of outside chances, but couldn’t make either of the putts I had. But still, it’s as close to the perfect round as I’ve ever played.

8. How do you stay motivated/passionate about what you do?
I'm 36 now and I'm still following my dream. Since I was a teenage boy I've wanted to be a professional golfer, to tour the world and play in the best tournaments in the world and I've got the opportunity to do it. I'm just trying to get better to be honest with you. I wake up in the morning and feel like I have something different to work on and I feel excited going to the golf course knowing I can get better. If I can click on that one thing, I know I can become even better. That's what drives me. Also, obviously, winning golf tournaments, that's the ultimate dream, but just trying to get better at this game. It seems like it's an ongoing process. Even when I shoot 67, I still go to the range.

9. As a full-line Titleist ambassador, what equipment will we see in your bag this week?
I went to the Titleist Performance Institute and the factories recently and tested some new clubs. I've got the new, larger prototype driver, which I'm hitting nice. I'm also playing new prototype Forged 695MB irons right now and they feel great. They look great, too. I've got Bob Vokey's wedges in my bag and a Cameron putter, too, which is new. I also have a new 503H utility iron and I play the Pro V1x golf ball. I'm looking forward to playing with all my new stuff. I've got to test it in competition since I've been off for a while but I'm looking forward to playing with all the new equipment. As a player, having confidence and consistency in the ball and equipment you play means everything. You want the peace-of-mind that you're with a company that gives you the best equipment available, like Titleist. You feel like maybe you're half a step ahead of the guy you're playing with and that means a lot. I'm in my third year with Titleist and my game's gone from strength to strength. I've won 15 times with this equipment so it's been really good to me!

Now a Quicker Nine...

1. Favorite Food: A good steak

2. Favorite Movie: Gladiator

3. Favorite Actor/Actress: Brad Pitt/Ashley Judd.

4. You spend a lot of time travelling around the world, is there one thing that you always take with you?
Golf clubs!

5. Do you collect Scotty Cameron headcovers?
You know, he's got some weird ones, but I just go with the old-fashioned red one.

6. What do you do to pass the time while travelling?
Sleep a lot! No seriously, I catch up on some reading. I’m not a big one for books, but I’ll read the papers, maybe a car magazine. I listen to a bit of music. And yeah, actually I do sleep quite a lot as well, but not if we’re flying during the day.

7. What's in your CD player at the moment?
Coldplay is probably my current favorite. Their new album is very good.

8. We know that you produce your own wine in South Africa. Does it mirror your smooth swing?
Yes, I guess you could say that (laughing)! I like Bordeaux-style wines and a lot of what we produce reflects that. Velvety smooth, just like my golf swing!

9. What's the best golf tip you've ever received?
My dad used to say the whole golf swing takes place in about a 2 foot area, the first foot in the takeaway and the first foot of your follow through. He said, always play square to square - take it back square and hit the ball square and keep the clubface square through the ball. So that little 2 foot square in front of you is what really matters. Whatever happens in the backswing or the follow through that's just your style of play or swing. But everything happens in front of you, so make sure you hit the ball square.

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