Eales gives Els the slip

Johnnie Walker Classic: South African held up in the traffic as an English late-developer moves into the overtaking lane
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF ERNIE ELS was saying something about this game being easy on Friday, he should have known better. Golf can be very capricious.

After two 67s, Els struggled to a 72 yesterday to be overtaken by Paul Eales and Wayne Riley in the third round of the Johnnie Walker Classic. In a city where the local transport system works like clockwork, Els's round was a reminder of home.

Having not had a bogey in 38 holes this week, suddenly three came along all at once. At least, until Riley arrived, the substitution was a simple one for the leaderboard operators.

At 32 Eales may be a late developer, but he has made inexorable progress through the ranks of the Challenge Tour and the main circuit in the last six years. Eales first went for a European Tour card in 1988. He was an assistant professional at Royal Lytham then, having already worked as a milkman, and when he failed at the first stage of qualifying his coach Eddie Birchenough and some other friends each chipped in pounds 100, which enabled him to try again. It was another five years before he made it, although he got to the US Masters - as a photographer's assistant.

In the last two years he has been in the top 50 on the Order of Merit and won the Extremadura Open in 1994. Yesterday proved another invaluable lesson. "Ernie was a real gentleman and I picked up a few pointers from him," Eales said. "He had a poor start with the three bogeys on the spin, a few putts lipping out and things not going his way. But he kept battling away and managed to limit the damage.

"I might have given up on myself and let my head go down. If I can learn to grind out a round like that more often when things aren't going right, I can become a better player."

Eales was not the one grinding away in his four-under round of 68, which contained holed putts of 40, 35 and 30 feet. As he expected, Els was booming the ball almost 70 yards further down the fairways. "I got sick of seeing the back of him," Eales said. "It wasn't so much embarrassing, as daunting how far he was down the fairway. But I have enough experience now to do my own thing. I concentrated on hitting some good iron shots and most of the time I was inside him and putting first."

Being attached to the Royal Lytham and St Anne's club in Lancashire, Eales is desperate to gain an exemption for the Open Championship there in July. "I wanted to come out of the blocks quickly this year to get myself up the Order of Merit for that reason," he said. "No one likes the lottery of pre-qualifying."

Els missed the green at each of the 3rd, 4th and 5th holes and later three-putted the 17th. "I don't know what I was thinking on the front nine," he said. "I hit some bad shots from decent positions. I didn't have a lot of concentration and let it get away from me. I also had a poor third round when leading the South African Open last week but still led at the end of the day."

At 10 under, he was two behind the joint leaders, and level with two other potential contenders, Fred Couples and Ian Woosnam. Both agree a 65 or 66 is required today. Woosnam's motivation, apart from winning for the first time in 16 months, is to climb back up the world rankings. He has slumped to 57th, partly due to them being recalculated over two years instead of three.

Riley beat a field of similar quality at the Scottish Open at Carnoustie last July but after his second succesive 67 he was adamant that was not in his mind. "If you start thinking about the Scottish Open, you are only asking for trouble," he said. "I've got the trophy on the shelf at home, but it's not going to help me here."

His third round got off to the best possible start with a chip-in for a birdie at the first. His English coach Gary Smith, from Camberley Heath, has been staying with Riley at his home in Sydney recently and has been trying to tighten up the Australian's backswing.

Fatherhood has done wonders for an image that the official media guide describes in terms of "youthful exuberance": John Daly, the original wild thing, has rechristened him the mild colonial boy.

The biker in town now is Greg Norman, who rode to the course from his hotel on a Harley Davidson. A friend is the distributor for the company in Singapore and has let him use the bike over the weekend. Having only just made the cut on one-under, Norman still isn't up to speed on the course, and he shot a one-over 73.