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Hard task for "Big Easy" Els at Match Play

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

MARANA, Arizona (Reuters) - Ernie Els never expected it to be easy after being gifted a spot in this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship when Phil Mickelson withdrew from the event to spend time with his family.

As the lowest-ranked player in the elite field of 64, South African Els has the daunting task of taking on British world number one and defending champion Luke Donald in Wednesday's opening round.

"I'm really fortunate to be here," triple major winner Els told reporters at Dove Mountain's Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Monday. "Being the last guy in, I've got to play the first seed, Luke Donald, and it's a tough match, like all matches here.

"It's interesting that I find myself in this position. In the past, it hasn't been quite my favorite event and I've skipped it a couple of times."

While former world number one Els has clinched the European Tour's World Match Play Championship a record seven times, he has struggled to make an impact in the PGA Tour's equivalent.

In 11 appearances, he has been knocked out in the opening round five times, most recently by American Jonathan Byrd in 2008. His best performance came in 2001 when the event was held in Australia for the first time and he reached the semi-finals, losing to Swede Pierre Fulke 2&1.

'BIG EASY'

"My record is not that great here (in this event) but I really enjoy the golf course we play now (at Dove Mountain)," said Els, who is widely known as the 'Big Easy' because of his smooth swing and generally laidback demeanor.

"It's really well designed for match play. The greens are a little bit quirky and there are a couple of risk/reward holes out there and shots that you have to take on. For match play, that keeps things interesting, especially on the greens.

"The greens are quite tricky and if you miss it in the wrong spots you can have really tough shots."

Asked what strategy he would use against Donald, who is remarkably consistent with one of the best short games around, Els replied: "It's 18 holes and it's not like I'm the worst match player in the world either.

"So I think I know what I need to do. You've got to keep the ball in play, you've got to keep it in play on every single hole because he's going to be (competing) in every hole.

"It's basically who can make the most putts and the most birdies."

Els, who has been beaten in the second round for the last two years at Dove Mountain, readily admits he is in Mickelson's debt this week.

"I've got some good red wines I can give him," the 42-year-old South African smiled. "And I definitely will buy him a dinner whenever he wants it."

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)