Ernie Els in best shape in years for a major challenge at The Open

Ernie Els waves to the crowd as he walks up the 18th hole during the first round at The Open, where he carded a 68 to sit three shots off the lead. Andrew Redington/Getty Images

SOUTHPORT, England - Ernie Els is too long in the tooth to get carried away after the first round of an Open Championship but he says he's feeling better than he has at this major in years.

The 47-year-old has missed two Open cuts since he won at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2012, and his best finish since was T25 four years ago.

Els' 2-under 68 on Thursday put him three shots behind first-round leaders Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar at Royal Birkdale. It was his best round in the competition since he last got his hands on the Claret Jug and it has left him feeling "competitive".

"I feel comfortable -- I'm swinging nicely, the body feels okay," he told reporters. "I just want to play as good as I can. In a perfect world I'd love to be in the final group on Sunday.

"I've won it, so I don't have all that major pressure on me like some of the other guys, but I still want to have a good showing. And as I say, if I'm there Sunday, I'd love to have a go."

The last couple of years have not been Els' best, with just one top-10 finish but, asked if he was feeling in his best shape at an Open since Royal Lytham, he said: "Yeah [but] it's hard to go back five years now. There was so much golf that was played in between.

"I started showing a round here and a round there, the U.S. Open and even at Augusta, I started playing decently here and there, I've just got to pull the whole thing together, that's what I'm trying to do."

The chances of Els getting close to his best depend a great deal on how his body is feeling, and he reported that problems with his lower back and elsewhere have eased.

"I feel that I can swing the club and come into links courses and compete," he said. "And my mind feels like I wanted to compete, so that's a good thing."

Being one of the game's elder statesman can be beneficial: Els hasn't come to England under any great pressure, he has bucketloads of valuable links golf experience and knows how to deal with the many elements that crop up at The Open.

He called links golf an "equalizer", the set-ups working in favour of those who might not drive the ball the furthest but can work their way around the peculiarities of the courses.

The biggest uncontrollable element in the UK, however, is the weather. On Thursday, the rough conditions of the early morning cleared away as the sun came out for the late starters.

Els was on the right side of the weather as it improved, and so too was South African compatriot Charl Schwartzel, who shot a 4-under 66 to sit one shot off the lead. However, Louis Oosthuizen was one of the earlier starters and carded a painful 8-over 78.

"I definitely know that we got away with a bit of a break in the weather," said Els. "This morning, it didn't sound good when I was lying in my bed, the wind and the rain. So the guys must have had it really tough.

"It started clearing up when we got to the first tee. And we had a club-and-a-half wind all day, which is kind of a comfortable wind to have, when you're playing a links course. So I felt comfortable with that. And I played quite nicely.

"This morning, I didn't even want to look out of the window. It sounded horrific. If it's like that tomorrow, obviously it's going to be tough.

"We've had some years where we had to kind of dig deep. I like it when it's tough but not crazy. Hopefully it's not going to be crazy."

With all that Els has achieved in his career, no one could blame him if his thirst for success had been sated. But, asked if he could dream of adding to his Claret Jugs of 2002, and 2012, he said simply: "Absolutely".