Golf: Els dominates the Emirates: South African cuts down European crop as he closes on a desert dream

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The Independent Online
IF ERNIE ELS had more confidence in his driver he might be dangerous. The 24-year-old South African was unimpressive off the tee but once he reached the greens he had a touch that made Midas look like a scrap-metal merchant. Els took 61 strokes to negotiate the Emirates course, one of the best on the European Tour, in the first round of the Desert Classic here.

Not only was it a course record, which over a layout of 7,100 yards is unlikely ever to be threatened even by the sands of time, but it spreadeagled and demoralised the field. Els could have putted yesterday through the eye of a needle and if the law of averages deems it unlikely that he can reproduce such accuracy over the next three rounds it is also unlikely that he will be caught.

Els is at 11 under par and the next best, the Englishmen Jonathan Lomas and Mark Roe, are a distant six under. 'You never know,' Els said conservatively. He reminded us that earlier this month the American, Davis Love III, shot 60 in the Hawaiian Open and did not win. 'I've never played as well in my life,' Els said. 'It was a dream round.'

His previous lowest round in competitive golf was 64 in the Bell's Cup in Capetown last year. Els Bell's. Last week in his home city of Johannesburg he played a social round with friends and shot 62. The common denominator between the 62 and yesterday's 61 is that both were achieved with an old Ping putter which in Els's large hands has taken on the property of a magic wand.

He bought it for dollars 80 ( pounds 53), in the United States three years ago but used it for the first time last week. 'I got it from some guy who tours around selling old clubs.' Els is the youngest player to break into the top 20 in the Sony world rankings and his pedigree is already impressive. When he was 14 he won the world junior championship in America and that convinced him that his future lay in golf. At 16 he became the youngest winner of the South African Amateur Championship.

Ernie is not the fastest driver in the Middle East and is experimenting with the longest club in the bag, after switching from a metal wood to a wooden driver. 'I never hit the ball out of the middle of the club,' Els, who played with Sandy Lyle and Joakim Haeggman, said. 'I was way behind them off the tee.'

On the greens he left them for dead. Els's extraordinary round included only 21 putts and he reckoned his average last year was 33 putts per round. He had 12 birdies, equalling the European Tour record established by Fred Couples in the Scandinavian Masters in 1991. Els, who started at the 10th, began with an unlikely birdie after hitting his approach shot into a bunker. He came out to five feet and he pinged that one in. So it went on . . . 35 feet at the 12th, 20 feet at the 13th, 18 feet at the 16th, eight feet at the 17th, 10 feet at the 18th etc. The only flukey thing about it came at the first hole where he chipped in from 30 feet. He went out in 32 and came home in 29. 'If I could get my driver going,' Els pondered. Perish the thought.

DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC (Emirates Club, Dubai) Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 61 E Els (SA). 66 J Lomas; M Roe. 67 I Aoki (Japan); G Evans. 68 A Binaghi (It); G Orr; J McHenry; G Norman (Aus); J Payne. 69 M Sunesson (Swe); D Clarke; P Way; O Karlsson (Swe); R Claydon; S Torrance; S Ames (Tri); R Boxall; R Willison; B Lane; P Broadhurst; A Forsbrand (Swe); K Eriksson (Swe). 70 P Curry; F Lindgren (Swe); J Hawkes (SA); S Tinning (Den); A Coltart; N Fasth (Swe); G Levenson (SA); D R Jones; A Murray; D Curry; D Gilford; F Regard (Fr); P-U Johansson (Swe); W Westner (SA). 71 F Larsson (Swe); M Mouland; F Couples (US); B Langer (Ger); C Montgomerie; J Robinson; A Sherborne; P Mitchell; D Ray; N Godin; O Nordberg (Swe); R Chapman; C Mason; J Haeggman (Swe); J Sewell; S Grappasonni (It).