Triple delight for Els in PGA Tour title defence

MIAMI Tue Mar 3, 2009 8:42pm GMT

Golfer Ernie Els of South Africa warms up on the driving range before sunrise prior to playing his quarter-final match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship golf tournament in Marana, Arizona, February 28, 2009. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan

Golfer Ernie Els of South Africa warms up on the driving range before sunrise prior to playing his quarter-final match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship golf tournament in Marana, Arizona, February 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Matt Sullivan

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MIAMI (Reuters) - Ernie Els has triple reason to be in upbeat mood for this week's Honda Classic at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

The smooth-swinging South African believes he is close to his best after a promising start to the year and has the luxury of commuting from home for this week's event where he defends his title.

"My whole game feels very close," Els, 39, said in the build-up to Thursday's opening round. "I'm happy with my progress and I want to keep working hard and getting better.

"I'm really looking forward to going back to the PGA National Resort. Every tournament is a bit more special when you're returning as defending champion and I'm sure this week will be no exception.

"Plus I get to sleep in my own bed, which is always a bonus," the three-times major winner said on his official website (www.ernieels.com).

Els was greatly encouraged after tying for 51st at the Northern Trust Open nine days ago before reaching the quarter-finals of last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.

"I made something like 16 birdies and an eagle in my first three matches at the Accenture Matchplay Championship, and that was following on from 17 birdies and an eagle at Riviera the previous week," the world number 14 said.

HAPPY PROGRESS

"So there is a lot of good in my game right now. I had a bit of an off-day against Stewart Cink in the quarter-final and that was where the story ended for me last week. But on the whole I'm happy with my progress."

A 16-times winner on the PGA Tour, Els was beaten 2&1 by American Cink in the last eight at Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona.

"We have several more weeks before the first major championship of the year (the Apr. 9-12 U.S. Masters) and if I can just keep going in the right direction with my game, then things are going to be looking good," the South African added.

Els, who ended a PGA Tour victory drought of almost four years with a one-stroke win at the PGA National Resort 12 months ago, faces a strong field this week including four other members of the world's top 20.

Second-ranked Spaniard Sergio Garcia, Colombian Camilo Villegas (ninth), British teenager Rory McIlroy (16th) and Cink (18th) are among those competing, along with English duo Justin Rose and 2006 champion Luke Donald.

American Mark Wilson, who won the 2007 title in a four-way playoff, returns to action fresh from his second PGA Tour victory at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico on Sunday.

(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Justin Palmer)

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