Golf: Extra special from Els

World Match Play Championship: A 40-foot putt gives South African his fourth successive place in final
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The Independent Online
For a moment, it looked like the only thing Ernie Els could not do at the Toyota World Match Play Championship was walk on water. His three-year reign on the West Course almost ended in the rain before he finally saw off the challenge of Nick Price by holing a putt of 40 feet at the first extra hole.

Els today plays Vijay Singh in a repeat of last year's final. The Fijian thought he was going to get to the warmth of the clubhouse earlier than he eventually did in beating Brad Faxon 4 and 3. It is rare for the winner to have started his campaign on Thursday, rather than receiving a bye into the second round as Els has done on each occasion, and Corey Pavin in 1993 is the only man to do so in the last nine years.

Els was kept out in the wet even longer by Price. "I've had my tough match today," Els said after his 11th successive win. "I hope I give Vijay his tough match tomorrow. These great players are hard to shake off. Vijay played better than me, but he was not playing Nick Price."

The Els-Price match would have been worthy of the final, but the excellence of the golf was matched by the dedication of the 20-strong greenkeeping crew, who turned the flooded greens into puttable surfaces in the later stages.

Without the wind of Friday, however, conditions were easier in the morning as Els and Price finished the first 18 holes all square after both shot 67.

The tone of proceedings was set when Els' birdie at the par-five fourth was not good enough to win the hole, Price slotting home an 18-footer for eagle. Els won three in a row from the sixth to edge ahead by one, but Price squared the match again at the ninth hole.

The pair have five majors between them, but make an interesting contrast, Els smooth and relaxed of swing, Price more nervously rapid-fire. The Zimbabwean was the steadier of the two, although he twice went ahead on the back nine, Els pegged him back each time.

Els holed from 10 feet at the 17th and the match stayed level until the seventh after lunch. Putts of 13 and eight feet did the trick, but a three- stroke swing went against him between the 12th and 15th. When the South African missed the same putt at the 17th he had earlier made, he was facing his first defeat in the event.

But Price missed the green with his third at the last, while Els got up and down for a birdie, holing from five feet. Playing the 37th for the first time, Els hit the better drive, but Price's three-wood from the rough ended inside the South African. With a shattering blow, however, Els holed his putt and Price missed from 20 feet.

"Walking down the 18th, I thought I had lost," Els said. "I thought I'd be playing off for third and fourth. But Nick left the door open for me with his third shot and I holed the putt. At the first, it was straight up the hill. That's the longest putt I've holed all week."

Els already has a record to himself in winning the World Match Play three times in a row, but is now chasing the overall mark of five held by this countryman Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros. Like the Spaniard, the gallery in these parts has taken to the laid-back South African, especially after the defeats of Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam.

Montgomerie, if he was watching proceedings, would have been doing so from his bed as he tries to shake off the flu ahead of his attempt to win the Order of Merit for the fifth successive time. If Monty has the Glasgow Herald delivered to his Surrey mansion, it would have told him he was definitely going to join the US Tour next year.

What sort of welcome he receives should that prove to be the case will be interesting. The fallout from his comments on some of the American team at Valderrama which were prominently quoted on the television coverage of the Ryder Cup to the United States continues.

"Montgomerie is the jerk of the world as far as I am concerned and when I see him I'll tell him to his face," Fred Funk said. "I think when he comes to play over here he's going to get the cold shoulder from a lot of guys." Another similarly anonymous member of the US Tour, Bob Estes, added: "Who's Monty going to play practice rounds with? I always knew he was a crybaby."

The land of political correctness has gone mad if one person's blunt but largely accurate analysis is decried, but personal abuse in reply is not condemned. Faxon, who was the subject of some of the comments, said: "I don't think Monty was being mean-spirited in what he said."

Montgomerie should not worry. He really would be in a funk if he ends up at the same end of a leaderboard with Funk and Estes.