Ernie Els hungry for victory at his first Macau Open
The Big Easy is presented with a 44th birthday cake and warns his rivals that he wants to taste success
When birthday boy Ernie Els joked "I got my cake and I'm gonna eat it too", it was not just a thank you to the Venetian Macau Open for presenting him with a chocolate gateaux on Thursday, but also a warning to the rest of the field the Big Easy is serious about winning on his first visit to the city.
And only the foolhardy would choose to dismiss it, especially after the South African's bravura performance on the opening day when he stormed back from a miserable four over par after his first seven holes to finish on even-par 71.
The big catch for the popular tournament this year was placed three shots behind joint leaders Australian Scott Barr, Kalle Samooja of Finland and Kiwi Ben Campbell, all on 68.
Els, ranked 23rd in the world, meant business. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Macau on his private jet, he woke up early on his 44th birthday - "after just four hours' sleep" - for a 7.10am tee-off in the company of Australian Scott Hend and Jeev Milkha Singh of India.
At first, Els struggled to find his bearings at the picturesque Macau Golf and Country Course, but things brightened up for him, just like the weather over Coloane.
"It was a tough start this morning and it was blowing hard and looked like it was going to really come down on us. But yeah, we got it in the house and all in all it was not a bad day," said Els.
Three bogeys and a double-bogey at the card-wrecker par-four 16th hole were remedied by five birdies on his way back home (the front nine) as he finished well in sight of the leaders.
On his return to the clubhouse, Els was presented with the birthday cake by the Asian Tour. But the real icing on the cake will be tasted on Sunday if he can add this small US$800,000 tournament to an impressive list of victories, including four major championships.
It might not mean much for a man who has won over US$82 million in prize money in his career - but it will do the Macau Open a whole world of good if his name joins the list of winners.
But Els, the first international ambassador with the Asian Tour, is wary, having recognised the manifold challenges of the tricky course.
"It's a demanding course. If you are off, you're going to make big numbers. That's the challenge - to stay away from the big numbers and plod away," Els said. "But I felt good with my driver and took advantage of some of the par-fives, although the par-threes are very demanding."
Els' arrival in Macau had been delayed due to bad weather over Japan, but having your own private jet helps.
"I had about four hours' sleep last night, but I slept quite a bit on the plane as it was a long flight. But you just get on with it, although I must say the older you get, the tougher it gets," Els said.
Els, who first played on the Asian Tour in 2004 and has featured in 26 tournaments across the region over the years, has an impressive record of two wins and 16 other top-10 finishes. On Sunday, he will hope to add to that list.
Meanwhile, another 40-something, two-time winner Zhang Lianwei, also turned back the clock finishing with a commendable two-under-par 69 to push himself into the picture.
"It was very difficult out there but I'm happy with this start. The wind made it difficult. But it's only one round," said the 48-year old Zhang, a winner in 2001 and 2002.
Defending champion Gaganjeet Bhullar of India had a poor start coming home two-over 73.