Golf: Els having a ball

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER Ernie Els has a birdie he discards the ball and tees up a new Titleist at the next hole. 'Sometimes we run out of balls,' Els said, slightly embarrassed at the immodesty of a statement of rare bravado. Of all the players in all the world, the 24-year-old South African can afford the odd blast on his own trumpet.

Earlier in the week Nick Faldo, before the start of the Murphy's Irish Open here, said it would be interesting to observe what reaction Els would suffer after his marathon US Open victory in the searing heat at Oakmont. Well, normal service was resumed yesterday, and in the third round Els turned in another highly impressive performance although he is some way behind the leader, Robert Allenby.

'It was a pleasure playing out there,' Els said. 'I really impressed myself with the driver.' Els, whose driving in the play-off at Pittsburgh against Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts often landed him in trouble, did not miss a fairway as he negotiated the only Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Ireland in 67. He unwrapped five new balls.

Big Monty was bearing up less well but, although he was nowhere near the consistency of Els, he had an ace up his sleeve at the 198-yard 14th. He holed in one with a three-iron and won a Volvo turbo diesel worth pounds 17,000. Twelve months ago, also in the third round here, he had a hole in one at the 11th and his reward was a bottle of champagne. Montgomerie's figures over the back nine yesterday made bizarre reading: 6, 3, 4, 4, 1, 5, 5, 5, 4.

Earlier it was announced that Ronan Rafferty had a hole in one at the 14th and the news was broadcast to the nation on Irish radio. Then over the tannoy came the following message: 'The latest score we have for Rafferty at the 14th is a five.' He did indeed get a double bogey at the hole.

Faldo, who began the day at four under, said after an untidy second round that he was within a smidgen of playing to the top of his game. He had six birdies yesterday and could have expected a seventh at the par-five 17th but instead got a six. Today Faldo will attempt to win the Irish Open for the fourth successive time. The only parallel was provided by Percy Alliss, Peter's father, who won the German Open four times on the trot from 1926.

Faldo, like Els, shot 67. 'I've reduced the smidgen,' he said. 'I hit a lot of good solid shots. It felt good. 'Lead' got me to stand far more even.' 'Lead,' of course, is his chief mechanic David Leadbetter who spent two and a half hours with Faldo on the practice ground on Friday night. Faldo hit a three-iron to five feet at the second hole and he described it as the best shot he has hit all year. The six at the penultimate hole was the only blemish.

Allenby, who is 22, can also invoke a little history by becoming the first player from Down Under to win the championship since Ossie Pickworth in 1950. Ossie the Aussie won with an aggregate of 287. Neither he nor Percy would get in the prize money here. Allenby, who won his maiden European Tour event in Hamburg a couple of weeks ago, got to 12 under for the championship with a 68, three in front of Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Seve Ballesteros scrambled a 71 but his game was so erratic he hit only nine greens in regulation. 'I don't know what's wrong,' he said. Mac O'Grady, his American coach, is not in Ireland and nor will he be at the Open at Turnberry in two weeks time. 'He's busy,' Ballesteros said. 'There's no problem. He's not my wife.'

(Photograph omitted)