Golf: Els' mastery of rain has rivals floundering

THE HOME favourite, Ernie Els, built a two shot-lead over the Scot Colin Montgomerie to take into today's third round of the Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa. Els, with an 11-under-par total of 133 after two rounds, is bidding to win the annual invitational event for the first time in eight attempts.

The South African, nicknamed "The Big Easy" because of his languid swing and laid-back nature, hit six birdies for a round of 66 yesterday on greens made difficult by the heavy rains that swept down on the Country Club course designed by Gary Player. He also remains the only player in the elite 12-man field not to have dropped a shot.

"I'm very pleased with the way things are going," said a typically relaxed Els, ranked No 5 in the world. "It was a very tough day out there. It started raining on the third tee and it's still raining. I thought they would postpone the round because the bunkers were unplayable. But this golf course can handle the rain."

Montgomerie, on nine under, is three shots clear of joint-third placed Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. Garcia, one under after the first round, surged up the leaderboard with five birdies over the first five holes of the second round, and was one stroke from the lead before spoiling a brilliant round by dropping two shots at the last.

The Spanish teenager slapped a bunker shot into the water on the 18th and finished with a double bogey after missing a shortish putt.

"I don't like the greens when they are soft. For me I find it's impossible to play. What happened on the 18th, that bunker was terrible. It's pretty sad," he said. Garcia was also highly critical of the organisers' decision to allow the second day's play to continue in the appalling weather. "They should have cancelled the round after six holes." he said. "The bunkers were like swimming pools."

Though Garcia was unhappy that play was not postponed, Els had no such reservations about these conditions: "When Sergio won in Germany earlier this year, I thought it was raining hard enough to be unplayable."

The overnight leader Paul Lawrie had a miserable day, hitting as many bogeys as Els had birdies, and slipped down the leaderboard to three under, eight shots off the pace, after a round of 76.

Defending champion Nick Price dropped two shots but, ever the wily campaigner on a course where he has won three Million Dollar events, remains a threat, seven shots behind the leader with two rounds to play.

The rest of the field kept heads under umbrellas and tried to make the best of a bad job, hoping the leaders would not get too far out of sight. The best of the rest was Ireland's Darren Clarke, who gritted his way to a 69, eight off the pace.

MILLION DOLLAR CHALLENGE (Gary Player Country Club, Sun City) Second round scores: 133 E Els (SA) 67 66. 135 C Montgomerie (GB) 66 69. 138 S Garcia (Sp) 71 67; L Westwood (GB) 68 70. 140 N Price (Zim) 68 72. 141 D Clarke (GB) 72 69; J Furyk (US) 70 71; P Lawrie (GB) 65 76. 142 C Franco (Par) 70 72. 143 J M Olazabal (Sp) 69 74; J Huston (US) 67 76. 148 M A Jimenez (Sp) 76 72.