Ernie and Phil still a classy force
In a field restricted to just 35 players, at least a third of whom look completely out of their depth, there is plenty to recommend odds of [21.0] about the best links player of his generation.
Don't write off some of the older fellers in the business, urges Paul Krishnamurty as he considers Ernie and Phil still being capable of some stellar golf.
In order to solve this week's two golfing puzzles, punters may be well served by employing the old adage that while form is temporary, class is permanent.
Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson may not be quite the same forces that have swept all bar Tiger Woods before them over the past 15 years, (particularly the former), yet both remain a serious threat on the courses to which they are best suited and know inside out. Whatever their prospects for the rest of 2012, there will be few better opportunities for either man than on these seasonal debuts.
Even Ernie's biggest fans must have been tempted to give up the ghost in 2011, and it's become impossible to dispute that his best years are behind him. The Big Easy retains a high-class long game and world-class scrambling touch, but his confidence with the putter has disintegrated to the point where he would be impossible to consider on some of his old favourite courses, such as Augusta or the Emirates in Dubai.
However, it is notable that Els earned his place in this week's Volvo Golf Champions line-up by winning back on home soil with an outstanding -25 total in the South African Open. Clearly, familiar surroundings worked the oracle then, and likewise if there is one course where he will feel at home, it is this week's venue.
The last time the European Tour visited the famous links of Fancourt, Ernie was touched off by his old sparring partner Retief Goosen with the next man seven shots behind. This is a layout that takes some learning and a top-notch links pedigree, separating the best from the rest. Els and Goosen may have since been overtaken by younger compatriots Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, but that is reflected in their much shorter odds. In any case, they will need to have made up a lot of ground on the basis of that last Fancourt appearance, when the up and coming pair were beaten by 14 and 16 shots respectively.
As we have seen so many times before with the likes of Tom Watson and Greg Norman, the very best links exponents can retain their competitiveness on these specialised layouts well into their senior years, and I suspect that will be the case with Open specialist Ernie, who sounds happy enough with his form in practice and recent invitationals. In a field restricted to just 35 players, at least a third of whom look completely out of their depth, there is plenty to recommend odds of [21.0] about the best links player of his generation.
Likewise, we really should know what the ideal conditions for Mickelson are by now. When there's plenty of room available off the tee and a stack of birdies required, Phil has very few peers. The Humana Challenge pro-am, (previously known as the Bob Hope Classic), has regularly been his starting point for the season, and he has usually fared well. In five tries, he's won this title twice and never finished worse than 16th. Significantly, he's usually been quoted for those previous appearances in single figures, compared to this year's [19.5] odds.
Nor has Lefty significantly declined, even if several younger players appear to have caught up. He produced one of his finest ever performances to win last year's Houston Open, and a personal best of second place in the Open Championship.
It is notable that the three-time Masters champion is rated well behind market leaders Woods and McIlroy for the season's first major, especially given the former's troubles. Mickelson has repeatedly thrived in California during this 'West Coast Swing', so it would be no surprise to see his reputation fully restored over the coming weeks.
Volvo Golf Champions
Ernie Els @ [21.0]
Phil Mickelson @ [19.5]