Golf: Back injury forces Els out of Buick

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ERNIE ELS, the world No1, was forced to withdraw after nine holes of the Buick Classic with a back injury yesterday and now has just six days to be fit enough to defend his US Open title next week.

Els' misfortune follows Tiger Woods' decision last week to miss the Kemper Open, also to have treatment for a back complaint. But while the former Masters champion said he is in no danger of missing the second major of the year, Els' injury would appear to be more severe.

"If it does not get any better," Els said, "then I am not going to be able to play the way I want to. I am just going to have to take it day by day but I am not going to make the mistake again of playing if I am not ready.''

Els left Westchester for his home in Orlando to consult the physiotherapist of the Orlando Magic basketball team. Davis Love, a third player suffering from back problems and who was the South African's playing partner briefly yesterday, also suggested he visit his own specialist, Tom Bours in Columbus, Georgia.

"I have never done anything like this," Els said of his retirement. "I have played through pain before, but this is the worst I have ever felt. As the round went on, and whenever I went for a bigger swing, it got worse.''

Ever since Els returned from a three-week break in South Africa following the Masters he has suffered an escalating series of injury problems, despite being on a fitness drive this year. He first had an elbow problem at the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas and then felt a back spasm at the PGA Championship at Wentworth.

The spasms, in the middle of his back, on the left side of the spine, became worse the following week at the Memorial, when he underwent treatment. But in trying to protect the injury, he has suffered problems in his lower right back and hip. He was still in the physio trailer being given treatment 20 minutes prior to his tee-time yesterday.

After a week having treatment from his physio in Las Vegas, Woods is satisfied his preparations for the US Open have not been affected. "It was a precaution to pull out of the Kemper," Woods said. "The problem was caused by suddenly starting to run four or five miles a day. I had been lifting weights, but had not been running for months and tried to do too much."

As well as defending next week, Els was hoping to claim his third Buick Classic title in a row. He was three over par for his nine holes.

Lee Westwood, after back-to-back wins in Europe, scored an 11th successive round under 70, his three under 68 leaving him four adrift of the leader Kevin Sutherland despite playing in the more windy conditions in the afternoon.

He dropped only one shot and came home in 33 with birdies at the short 14th, where he hit a nine-iron to 18 inches, and the 15th, where he cut a high three-wood from 236 yards to 12 feet and holed the putt. Europe's other late starters did not fare so well, Ian Woosnam having a 72, Jose Maria Olazabal and Darren Clarke 73s, Nick Faldo a 74 and Bernhard Langer a 75.

BUICK CLASSIC (New York) Leading first round scores: (US unless stated): 64 K Sutherland (US). 66 S Lowery, B Tway, J P Hayes, P Goydos. 67 T Lehman, M Calcavecchia. 68 L Westwood, B Fleisher, K Fergus, J Maggert, M Wurtz, H Royer, D Sutherland. 69 J Parnevick (Swe), 72 I Woosnam (GB). 73 J Maria Olazabal (Sp), D Clarke (GB). 74 N Faldo (GB). 75 S Lyle (GB), B Langer (Ger).

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