Golf: Home from home for Els

Volvo PGA: Familiarity with tough course is breeding success for the South African
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The Independent Online
SUMMERTIME AND the living is easy for Ernie Els. "This is the start of good things to come," said the father of a four-day-old daughter called Samantha Leigh. "When something nice in your life like this happens, there are no problems. If I shoot 80 tomorrow, I'll still be OK."

The chances of that happening are minimal. Els is an honourary member at Wentworth and has bought a house as a summer base by the 16th hole of the West Course, a track that not only favours his power game but has already brought him outstanding success.

Els won 11 consecutive matches in the World Match Play before losing to Vijay Singh going for a fourth consecutive title. In strokeplay, the South African has been second three times in the Volvo PGA Championship, two of those performances setting up victories in the US Open only weeks later.

"This is one of my favourite events," he said. "It is a good way of leading up to the US Open." His 67 yesterday was a round of five under par and one that could have been even better. Out in 31, Els eagled the second and almost had the first albatross of his career but for his six-iron approach at the fourth shot lipping out.

In his first round on Friday, Els admitted to being distracted by recent events. Yesterday was different. "I told myself, 'let's play some golf today and stop walking around in the clouds'," Els said. "I still found myself getting away from it a bit but my mind was more focused."

Where Els could not take advantage was at the closing two holes, both par fives but played in par by the world No 5. At nine under, his name stood at the top of the leaderboard for most of the day, one ahead of his compatriot Retief Goosen. He was only overtaken late in the evening by Darren Clarke, whose second successive 67 took the Ulsterman to 10 under.

Clarke had to wait for two hours to complete the 18th when play was suspended due to a thunderstorm, only the valiant efforts of the greenstaff allowing for play to resume at all. Clarke, who was second in this tournament two years ago, returned to where his drive had finished in the right-hand rough and completed a birdie-four.

A father of less than a year himself, Clarke said of Els, his playing partner today: "I hope his baby wakes him up several times during the night."

The threeball of Clarke, Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer did not fire as they had on Friday morning. Langer, the overnight leader by two strokes, had a 73, a blow to his hopes of not only a fourth PGA title but also his attempt to get into the top-two of the order of merit by tomorrow evening.

That is the German's only hope of gaining a place in the US Open, an event he has played in on 15 occasions, but in which he has completed 72 holes only six times. Montgomerie will go to Pinehurst as a contender but will need something similar to his Sunday best of 65 a year ago to defend his title.

After a fairly indifferent performance for 17 holes, Monty's mood was considerably lightened by his five-iron approach and 10-foot putt for eagle to move to five under. "Those were the only two decent shots all day," he said. "I'll go to bed a lot more confident now."

Goosen, who shot a 69 to be eight under, broke his left arm in a snowboarding accident in January but currently leads the order of merit after his win at the French Open earlier this month and his second place in the TPC of Europe to Tiger Woods in Germany last week.

"Retief has always had a great talent but he is a late developer," said Els. "He's not far from winning a major. He won the Dunhill Cup for us twice and he could be a real threat to Colin Montgomerie on this tour now. I don't want to criticise him, but I don't think he likes the attention."

In which case Goosen could not have found himself in a more conspicuous threeball than playing with Els and Seve Ballesteros. But after dropping a shot at the first, Goosen played flawless golf. The same could not be said of Ballesteros.

The Spaniard does not do pars but brilliant birdies are still within his repertoire and he duly birdied the last two holes to give himself a chance of making the cut. The four at the 17th, via trees and rough if not the fairway, had his playing partners shaking their heads in disbelief.

Sergio Garcia, only 19 and in his fourth event as a professional, is far from the finished article but he is certainly capable of similar moments of magic as his predecessors, Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.

While the Masters champion added a 70 to move to six under, Garcia suffered two double bogeys and despite a birdie at the 16th came to the last requiring an eagle to ensure avoiding his first missed cut. A three-iron to three feet duly took him to one over.

An even better approach at the last came from Dean Robertson. The Scot, whose maiden tour win came in Italy on the first bank holiday weekend of the month, hit a four-iron to a foot for a three which took him to seven under.

Robertson's impressive form did not go unnoticed by one of his playing partners, the Ryder Cup captain Mark James, who also finished at seven under. James was also keeping an eye on a player in the group in front. With Ken Brown, Sam Torrance will be one of James's assistants at Brookline in September but both men would be delighted if the Scot ended up actually playing.