Golf: Faldo's fight against the clock

European Tour steps up the war against slow play as Els watches his lead slip away

ERRATIC play cost Ernie Els and slow play was very nearly expensive for Nick Faldo as the Briton closed in on the South African in the Johnnie Walker Classic here yesterday.

A third-round 69 lifted Faldo to within a stroke of the defending champion, who managed to pick up five birdies and still slump to a 74. Four bogeys and a double bogey littered Els' card and he was a relieved man still to be holding the lead going into today's final round.

Faldo, who has not won a title since the start of March last year, will fancy his chances of collecting a third Classic today as he is perfectly positioned to pick off the downcast Els. But golf is no longer just a straight fight against his fellow pros for Faldo who now has a new battle on his hands - one against the clock. As the Tour continues to wage its war against slow play, Faldo was the latest transgressor of the new time laws.

John Paramor, the Tour's chief referee, timed Faldo and his playing partner, Lee Westwood, as they played the 16th and 17th, and in the scoring tent afterwards approached Faldo with a warning for slow play, pointing out that he took 22 seconds too long for his tee shot on 17. Faldo, never one to take criticism lightly, countered that Westwood had taken longer on his previous approach shot, but was told that it was a difficult shot and allowances had been made.

Two players were penalised a shot and fined pounds 500 in Thursday's opening round, but Faldo, also put on the clock on the first two days, avoided that by taking only eight seconds over a chip on the 17th green and being safely inside the limit on his remaining five shots of the round.

Faldo was in no mood to waste his time talking about time afterwards but Paramor said of the man once voted the slowest player on the US Tour by fellow players: "He can sometimes be deliberate. I wanted him to understand how we are going to administer this here in Europe. Nick thinks it should be black and white, but it can't be cast-iron. We have sensible guidelines."

It was a black mark on what was otherwise a good day for Faldo. Three birdies and a spectacular eagle on the par-five 11th got Faldo firing as he made good use of the new driver he has pinned his faith in.

Els is one of the quicker players on tour but struggled in the swirling winds to maintain his relentless pace of the first two days. His round went off the rails on the 13th where he hit a beautiful drive into the centre of the fairway only for his ball to end up in a divot. Els' approach shot to the green inevitably found a bunker in front of the green, and after chipping up, he missed a six-foot putt for par. His putter was next to land in the sand.

"I was pissed off, to say the least. It was a really bad break, but that's the game," Els said.

The Asian supporters had turned out to cheer on Tiger Woods, but as the 21-year-old phenomenon fell to eight shots off the pace with a 71, a local hero emerged for the galleries in third place. Thailand's Prayad Marksaeng, who on Friday was named Asian Golfer of the Year, shot a 69 to finish one shot behind Faldo at eight-under. "Can I win?" Prayad mused. "Maybe not with someone like Ernie Els in front of me, but I will try my best."

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