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Ernie Els to tee up at Korean Open

South African superstar Ernie Els aims to get over a season of near misses when he tees off on Thursday in the US$400,000 Kolon Korean Open at Woo Jung Hills Country Club.

The man know as the Big Easy has won three tournaments this year, but he suffered heartbreak in the Majors when he came close to victory three times. He also saw rival Vijay Singh snatch the world number one ranking from Tiger Woods.

"I was three shots away from winning three majors," said Els, who finished second behind Phil Mickelson in the US Masters and lost in a play-off to Todd Hamilton in the British Open. He was tied ninth in the US Open and equal fourth in the PGA Championship.

"I was in contention in every one and walked away with nothing," he said.

The world number three, who tied for 10th at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand in January, is looking forward to renewing battle with the Asian Tour's top golfers.

"I think it's great. I mean, golf is truly a global game now and there are a lot of very promising players emerging from countries you wouldnt have expected 10 years ago," said the 34-year-old.

"It's good for the game as a whole," said Els of the rapid rise in standards of Asian golf.

Others in the field include Korea's talented Kevin Na, the youngest player on the US PGA Tour this year, local heroes Kang Wook-soon, Hur Suk-ho and Charlie Wi, Scotsman Simon Yates, currently third on the Asian Tour Order of Merit, and Thailand's Thaworn Wiratchant, runner-up in last year's Korean Open.

Defending champion John Daly was due to feature in the event but withdrew earlier this week.

Els, who finished seventh in his defence of the Omega European Masters in Switzerland last weekend, said he was delighted to return to Korea eight years after his last visit.

He is also looking forward to playing with Na, who shot to fame with victory in the 2002 Volvo Masters of Asia at the age of 19. "I haven't actually played with Kevin this year, but I've seen him on the practice ground and he seems to swing the club well and hit the ball very nicely," said Els.

"I think it's a great story, him being only 20 years of age and playing on the PGA Tour. He's a star of the future, I think," the three-time Major winner added.

The home challenge will be led by former two-time Asian number one Kang, who is yearning for his first Korean Open crown. A winner of seven titles across the region, the 38-year-old hopes this could be his year.

"The Korean Open is one of the titles that I hope to win in my career," said Kang. "For all golfers, winning their national Open is of great importance and hopefully I can do it this week."

The closest Kang came to savouring victory was in 2002. He shot a four-day total of 20-under-par at Seoul Hanyang Country Club but still had to settle for the runner-up spot behind Spanish whiz kid Sergio Garcia, who triumphed by three shots.

Another player to watch is the methodical Wi, who was tied second in the SK Telecom Open on home soil in late May before going on to win a local event in the following week.

In the Tianjin TEDA Open Presented by Rolls-Royce in China, the Asian Tour's 13th leg, last month, he finished tied fifth.

Thai-based Yates will also return to Seoul with happy memories after clinching the SK Telecom Open. He was equal fifth in Tianjin last month and could well contend for a Korean double this week.

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