Golf: Els leaves Norman behind

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The Independent Online
A BOOKMAKER - such a species does not exist in the Gulf, at least not officially - would not be able to offer a price on Ernie Els winning the Desert Classic today.

Els, the most talented golfer to emerge from South Africa since Gary Player, has turned this championship into a one- camel race. From the moment he exploded from a bunker and sank the putt for a birdie on the first hole in the first round Els has been in command. On Thursday his course record of 61 contained just 21 putts. The average is around 35. Regardless of the distance, he could not miss and his round was studded with 12 birdies.

He followed that extraordinary effort with a 69, increasing his lead over the field from five strokes to six and yesterday the margin became eight following a round of 67. He is at 19 under par, Greg Norman 11 under. The strange thing is that although he has been in control of the leaderboard he has been unpredictable off the tee. His driving is sometimes erratic but his powers of recovery are something else. The Emirates course here, with sand and water at nearly every turn, has a number of dangerous holes, but whenever Els found trouble he managed to escape.

There was a classic example on the first hole yesterday where he hooked his drive so far left he thought he may have been out of bounds. He hit a provisional but found the original was playable - only just. The 24-year-old, 6ft 3in and 15 stone, hit his approach shot to within 30 feet of the flag. He repeated the feat at the second and then normal service was resumed. A birdie at the third, two more at the fifth and sixth. When he was in big trouble at the 10th he came out of a bunker to within 18 inches of the hole and gained further birdies at the 13th and 16th.

Els began the day with a six- stroke cushion over Sam Torrance, Gary Evans and Paul Broadhurst, with Norman a shot further back. Torrance, who was paired with Els, lost his grip, literally, at the first yesterday when he hooked his drive. It was caused by the grip on his new metal driver coming apart and it appeared to unhinge Torrance, who rapidly lost ground with a string of bogeys. Broadhurst also beat a hasty retreat, Evans trod water and the closest challenger, albeit a mirage-like figure on the horizon, was Norman.

The Australian shot 68, coming home in 33 with three birdies and an eagle. However, Norman is not so much stormin' as suffering. On his first visit to the desert he has discovered he is allergic to something. He is taking so many different tablets his golf bag should be carried by a pharmacist.

The only time Norman played against Els was in the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews a couple of years ago. Norman shot 68, Els 70. Last summer, when Norman won the Open at Royal St George's, Els, who was joint sixth, became the first player in the history of the championship to break 70 in all four rounds. He is on course here for more record-breaking, and deep down Norman senses that his biggest allergy is Els.

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