Els still excited at 20th try

Ernie Els (AFP)
Ernie Els (AFP)

Augusta - A South African is among a trio of players who will open the 78th Master golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf club on Thursday and six will be hoping they will be the one closing proceedings on Sunday.

At the first of the four majors, three-time Masters champion Gary Player shares the honorary starter position with fellow golfing legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Player, who in 1961 became the first non-American to win at Augusta National, believes that the six fellow South Africans in the field this year can do well.

"I had the pleasure to play a practice round with Branden Grace and George Coetzee last year," Player said.

"I must tell you that both of these young South African guys are real talents.

"Hopefully I was able to give them some tips during our practice round last year that pay off."

Coetzee failed to meet the qualifying criteria for the tournament this time around, but Grace looked impressive as he finished 18th as a rookie last year.

Surprisingly Tim Clark was the best South African in 2013 as he finished 11th after missing the cut in the three previous years.

This gave him an invite for the tournament and the 38-year-old Durban-born player who finished second in 2006, knows how to play the course.

Trevor Immelman went one better in 2008, when he became the second South African after Player to win the coveted green jacket, beating Tiger Woods into second place by three shots.

Immelman has fallen down in the rankings and tied for 50th last year. He is hoping to improve on that, but it seems unlikely that he will challenge for the title.

The third South African to have won in Augusta, Charl Schwartzel, is one of a whole range of favourites.

The 29-year-old, who won in 2011, has just become a father for the first time and the birth of his daughter Olivia could well give him a boost to challenge for a second victory.

Another South African expected to be in the mix for a good finish is 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who in 2012 lost in a play-off against Bubba Watson.

He missed the cut in his four other appearances at the tournament and is now hoping to continue where he left off in 2012, rather than in 2013.

Ernie Els is the oldest of the South Africans playing in Augusta, but the 44-year-old won the Open in 2012 and finished fourth at the US Open last year, showing that he can still take on the younger players.

Although he is a 100-1 outsider for the green jacket, he is being touted as a player with a good chance by many journalists.

He said he was still as excited about playing in Augusta as he was in 1994 when he first played.

"This is my 20th appearance in the Masters and the experience never gets old," Els said.

"You feel a buzz when you arrive and the butterflies start to dance around in your stomach.

"Everyone’s excited to be here, even the champions from 20 or 30 years ago. You never want to stop coming back, it’s that special."

With world number-one Tiger Woods missing following back surgery, Americans were looking towards Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar or Watson for a win, while Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy or the two Australians Jason Day and defending champion Adam Scott were also among the favourites.

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