Golf: Els shows spirit of a champion

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The Independent Online
In celebrating his 27th birthday on Thursday, it can only be assumed that Ernie Els decided on an early night. It is the only explanation for what happened yesterday morning when Els found himself six down against Steve Stricker after their first circuit of the West Course.

Els could not manage a birdie until the 18th and that was only good enough for a half. "Believe it or not, I did not have a beer all day," Els said of his birthday. "I played like I had a hangover, though." The South African, winner of the last two Toyota World Match Play Championships, in fact paired with Sean Connery for a comeback against Jackie Stewart and Els Snr. It was a good omen.

In 1965, his countryman Gary Player was six down at lunch and lost the 19th against Tony Lema, but won at the 37th. In 1982, Sandy Lyle was six down against Nick Faldo and went on to win 2 and 1. Els likes a challenge. He chipped in at the third in the afternoon and was off and running. He also chipped in at the eighth and holed what he described as a "hallelujah putt" from 40 feet for a half at the ninth.

"I was beginning to wonder what was going on then," Stricker, whose great run of success from St Andrews was due to come to an end, said. It took until the 15th for Els to get square, but at the last Stricker drove into a bunker. His six-iron hit the top of the lip and with an awkward stance, he hit a three-wood over on to the green. "One of the best shots I've ever seen," Els said.

But Stricker could not hole out for a birdie and Els two-putted, despite the second falling in the right edge, to extend his run in the event to seven wins out of seven. "I didn't think I had much chance of getting back into it the way I played this morning," Els said. "I felt for Steve. He played well all day and was all over me. I just wanted to get it into the second nine in the afternoon."

"Nothing went right for me in the afternoon," Stricker said. "Everything went right for Ernie. He hit great shot after great shot."

Els faces Mark Brooks in today's semi-finals after the USPGA champion beat Colin Montgomerie by one hole to end the home interest. The European No 1 was two up after 24 holes, but the American birdied seven of the last 11 holes to clinch the match. Holing from eight feet at the 35th put him one up, and doing similarly at the 36th, prevented the match going into extra holes as the rain and the night closed in equally fast.

Had it not been for the 90-minute rain delay in the morning, Vijay Singh's match with Steve Jones would have been over with indecent haste. Singh won 9 and 8, not quite a record margin, but the US Open champion received pounds 40,000 for his 28-holes work. At the 17th in the morning, Jones hit his drive out of bounds. When Singh, who went out of bounds with his second against Phil Mickelson on Thursday, found the fairway off the tee, Jones conceded the hole. "I wanted to watch the match in front. It was much more interesting," Jones said, referring to the Brooks-Monty encounter.

In the afternoon, Jones bogeyed the third and then Singh, in sparkling form, holed from 40 feet for an eagle at the next on his way to winning four holes in a row. Singh plays Tom Lehman today, the Open champion overcoming fellow American Mark O'Meara 6 and 5. Singh and Lehman have unfinished business. In the President's Cup in 1992, which the Americans won comfortably, they were deadlocked at the third extra hole when they called it a day.

TOYOTA WORLD MATCH PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP (Wentworth) Quarter-finals: E Els (SA) bt S Stricker (US) 1 hole; M Brooks (US) bt C Montgomerie (GB) 1 hole; T Lehman (US) bt M O'Meara (US) 6 and 5; S Jones (US) lost to V Singh (Fiji) 9 and 8. Semi-final draw: 0830 and 1300 *E Els (SA) v M Brooks (US); 0845 and 1315 V Singh (Fiji) v *T Lehman (US). *denotes seeded player