Golf: Els ace trumps Spanish kings

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The Independent Online
ERNIE ELS, the 24-year-old golfer from South Africa, had the second ace of his career in the Volvo PGA Championship here yesterday. The hole-in-one helped him turn a one-shot overnight lead into a two-shot advantage over the strongest European field of the season at the halfway stage.

His perfect six-iron at the fifth - it went in after 'a bounce and a couple of rolls' - enabled him to compile a second consecutive 66. On 132, 12 under par, he leads Miguel Angel Jimenez by two shots, Jose Maria Olazabal by three and the 30-year-old Glaswegian, Adam Hunter, by four. Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle and the defending champion, Bernhard Langer, are among those on five under par.

Nick Faldo, bemoaning a cold in the head and a far-from- hot putter in his hands, is on two under. With an eagle at the last, Lyle belied the rustiness one might expect of a man who has made only six starts out of a possible 17 in Europe this season.

Els is a prodigious hitter and can be an astonishing putter. Last January, he opened with a 61 en route to victory in the Dubai Desert Classic, and if he were to win here tomorrow night, he would be the first repeat winner on tour this year.

Els picked up his other four shots yesterday in distinctly less flamboyant fashion. The longest putt he holed in making birdies at the eighth, 11th, 12th and 18th was the 12-footer that disappeared at the 11th. Later, Els learned that his stroke of fortune at the fifth had earned him a jeroboam of champagne.

Olazabal's 68 did not have him celebrating. 'It was a mixture of some good shots and some bad ones,' he said. He is still working on rediscovering the shoulder turn he acquired under John Jacobs's supervision before he won the Masters. Most of his good shots went in making his six birdies, and two of his bad ones came at the long 17th, where he he used his sand wedge three times before finding the green and then one- putted for a bogey six.

His Spanish compatriot, Jimenez, has one tour win to his credit - in Belgium two years ago - and four top-10 finishes this season. He had eight birdies yesterday and primarily attributed his score to his putting. 'I have changed to a Ping,' he said. 'I only missed one putt I might have holed.'

On Wednesday, Hunter's wife was taken into hospital - 'I don't think she would want me to tell you what it was' - and he contemplated withdrawing from the championship, but she persuaded him to play. If her sudden illness came as a nasty shock, what followed has been a pleasant surprise. Hunter had not made the cut in five previous attempts in this event, and until he shot 71 on Friday, he had never broken par at Wentworth. Yesterday, he celebrated his wife's discharge from hospital by firing a 65.

He had two birdies, two bogeys and an eagle on the front nine and five birdies coming home, including three in succession to finish. His best round of the year? 'By a long shot,' he replied. In fact, his best by three shots.

His fifth place in Catalonia last month was Hunter's best ever, although the consequent euphoria seemed to get to him. He missed the cut in the three tournaments he played between that one and this. 'My wife's illness made me realise there are more important things than golf,' he said.

A sense of perspective was much needed by Sweden's Robert Karlsson, whose game disintegrated as rapidly as Chelsea's defence in the Cup final. He walked on to the 13th tee at one under par for the tournament, well placed to make the cut. He then contrived to finish bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, double- bogey, double-bogey. The latter two represented a 'Sunset Strip', back-to-back sevens, and it all added up to a 77 on the day and an aggregate of 151, seven over par. Who said seven was a number of good omen?

Also on his way home last night was Ian Woosnam. In his last tournament, four weeks ago, he played the final 46 holes in 20 under par to win in Cannes. He played the first 36 here in four over and missed the cut, the only one of Europe's 'Big Six' to do so.

Colin Montgomerie, whose girth would get him into an alternative 'Big Six' and whose golf is close to expanding the more enviable category into the 'Big Seven' - he is leading money- winner this year, having topped the Order of Merit last season - made the grade at one under. But Big Ernie is surely too far away from Big Monty now.

Peter Corrigan, page 3

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