MELBOURNE, Australia -- The sun had just disappeared over Port Phillip Bay when Ernie Els pulled into the drive at Metropolitan Golf Club, eased out of his car and flashed a smile that flows as freely as his swing.
Wearing khaki shorts, a gray T-shirt and beach sandals, Els hopped into a cart with his caddie, opened a can of Heineken and sped off for his first look at the course where the Match Play Championship will be played. It was 18 hours before his first match.
Yet another reason why they call him the "Big Easy."
In a World Golf Championship without stars such as Tiger Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson, Els is the main attraction, the only player among the top seven in the world ranking who interrupted his holidays to come to Australia.
It wasn't easy, which is why he was such a late arrival.
"It's tough leaving home this time of the year, man," said the 31-year-old South African, the last player to check in. "We've got a beach house, everybody is on holiday, we're all at the beach having barbecues."
A barbecue may be an apt description of Metropolitan when the Accenture Match Play Championship begins Wednesday (Tuesday night EST), starting with David Toms against Hirofumi Miyase in the first of 32 matches.
Not only have temperatures soared toward 100 degrees on the southeastern tip of Australia, but 32 guys are going to be hot under the collar after flying halfway around the world, through countless time zones, only to play 18 holes and be eliminated.
"Nobody wants to go home early," Tom Lehman said. "So I'm working on my game, and expect to be around to the bitter end."
Vijay Singh said he took only a couple of days off - although his caddie said it was only one, Christmas Day - with hopes of keeping his game sharp for six matches required of the winner.
"A lot of guys out here will be trying to find their game this week, which is not a good thing," Singh said. "If it's up to me, I think we should be prepared when we come over here."
Obviously, Els has a different outlook.
Sure, he could have left on Friday like most players, put in two solid rounds of practice and prepared himself like he does for most tournaments.
"I might still lose and pack my bags," he said. "It's a little risky, but so be it. I don't say it's the perfect way to go, but what the hell?"
Considering what has happened to the No. 2 player in the world the past two years, it's easy to understand his thinking.
In the inaugural Match Play Championship, Els was coming off a victory in the Nissan Open when he was bounced in the first round by Paul Azinger. Last year, he missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th and was defeated by Bob Estes in the second round.
Such are the vagaries of match play, where there is no such thing as an upset because of the fine line of talent in the world of golf, and there are sudden, bizarre shifts of momentum that often decide an 18-hole match.
That's a big reason so many top players are somewhere other than Down Under.
Woods, who declared in July he would not be coming, said he might have considered a trip to Australia in a stroke-play format. Mickelson said he had vacation planned with his family, as did Colin Montgomerie.
What remains in the tournament for the top 64 from the world ranking is not a "Who's Who" of the world's best players, but a "Who's That?"
To fill the field, tournament officials had to dip to No. 104 in the world - Greg Kraft, who will be Els' first-round opponent. A dozen players have never qualified for a World Golf Championships event.
Because of the time, the place, even the money - the $1 million check after Australian taxes will be whittled to $530,000 - not many players begrudge those who didn't come.
"I do agree with the players. It's totally the wrong date, not even a question," Els said. "Australia, of all places, and on the third of January. Then I read in the paper it's like a 50 percent tax. I didn't even bloody look at that."
Now that he's here, Els is glad he came.
Metropolitan is yet another gem in Melbourne, which might boast the best collection of championship courses of any city in the world. The Presidents Cup was played at Royal Melbourne two years ago, and the Australian Open was played nearby at Kingston Heath. Next door to Metropolitan is Huntingdale, site of the Australian Masters.
"This is better than all of those," Els said after his whirlwind tour.
The fairways are as pure as Augusta National, with slick greens guarded by shaved slopes and bunkers with steep lips.
"This is real golf," Els said. "I think the guys are missing out, not only on this tournament, but the golf course."
This isn't the first time Els was a late arrival. He received a late invitation to play in the Australian Masters in 1993, and got there in time to play only nine holes.
How did he do?
"I finished second," he said, and laughter came easily.
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