Els as ready as he's ever been
SANDWICH, England -- Ernie Els arrived at Royal St. George's on Monday, a wire-to-wire victory at the Scottish Open fresh in back pocket and the Claret Jug in hand, to defend the title that rejuvenated his career.

Ernie Els
Ernie Els says he feels as good as he's ever felt, a fact that should worry the rest of the field.

Since Els' victory in a four-way playoff at the 2002 British Open, the South African has won six times. For those of you scoring at home, that's the same number of tournaments that Tiger Woods has won in the last 12 months.

"I'm feeling physically as good as I've ever been," Els said Tuesday afternoon after a practice round with Nick Price, Vijay Singh and Charles Howell III. "I made some nice putts last week at Loch Lomond. And it was a good sign to win from day one, to be in the lead from day one, to sleep with the pressure of leading the golf tournament and trying to go with that. I haven't done that since February or March."

Els played the last five holes Tuesday in 1-under, including a two-putt birdie at the 550-yard 14th, where, with a stiff wind behind him, Els hit two irons to the back of the green. He made a nice up-and-down from off the elevated 17th green, putting the ball from the edge of a bunker to within five feet. At the last, Els missed a 12-foot birdie that cost him $40 in the bet that he and Price had with Singh and Howell.

The miss left him a little chagrined -- "If I had made that putt, I could have made some money," he said -- but, hey, it was Tuesday. More to the point, Jimmy Johnson, Price's long-time caddie, came off the 18th green and said, "Ernie is swinging the best I've ever seen him. Ever."

That's some statement given the way that Els began this season. Els has enjoyed three seasons in one. From January to mid-March, he won the Mercedes and the Sony, both in Hawaii, as well as the Heineken and the Johnnie Walker in Australia.

Season Two began when he sprained his wrist by losing a bout with the punching bag hanging in the garage of his home near London. Els tried to play through the injury, but after finishing sixth at Augusta, took some time off to let it completely heal.

That brings us to Season Three, which commenced last week at the Scottish, where Els cruised to a five-stroke victory. He leads the Volvo Order of Merit, which is European for "the money list," with 1.83 million euros, and is eighth on the PGA Tour money list with $2,623,859.

The one-time child prodigy of professional golf is 34, old enough to have played Royal St. George's the last time it hosted the British Open, in 1993. He finished tied for sixth there as a 23-year-old, and became the answer to a trivia question: Who is the first man to shoot four rounds below 70 in the British Open? Els completed the feat about an hour before the 1993 champion, Greg Norman.

Els looks back at that tournament without remorse. "I wasn't like these 23-year-olds that come out nowadays," he said. "I was really having a good time in those days and I wanted to have a good week. I remember I was hitting the ball very well that week, especially with the driver. I hit driver almost on every hole that year, in those days." The last phrase made him sound like the married, settled, father of two that he has become.

"I did have a good learning experience in '93," Els said. "I was just trying to make enough money and learn, and that's what I did that year."

A year later, Els won the first of his two U.S. Opens. He feels good enough about the state of his game that he acknowledged the possibility that golf fans all over the world will turn on the television Sunday hoping to see him and Woods in the final twosome. Woods, who also won wire-to-wire in his last start, the Western Open, comes into the British Open without a major championship for the first time in five years, a point Els noted. But then, he caught himself. "I don't want to think about Sunday on Thursday," Els said. "I want to think about Thursday on Thursday."

As the reigning champion of the British Open, Els has been the keeper of golf's most famous trophy for the last 12 months. They part this week on good terms. "I had it around the world with me," Els said, that halogen smile spread wide across his face. "I took it all the way around the world -- Australia, South Africa, the States. I had a great time with it."

And he hopes that they will reunite on Sunday evening.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.