Golf: Olazabal in a painful exit

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HAVING been four down with 16 holes to play, and not having led until the 13th hole in the afternoon, Ernie Els beat Jose Maria Olazabal by 2 and 1 in their semi-final yesterday.

Victory was secured at the 17th, where Els hit a 305-yard drive, a 265-yard three-iron and took two putts for a winning birdie four. He was six under par for the afternoon holes. Els not only beat the Masters champion, he gained revenge for relinquishing a three-shot last- round lead to the same man over the same course in the PGA Championship last May.

Today's final will pitch Els against Colin Montgomerie, whom he beat in a play-off for the US Open in June. 'I'd better be on my game,' Els said. 'I beat him there, but this will be different. I don't think we'll choke like we did there.'

A nagging injury to his left hip had left Olazabal limping like a veteran but he was still capable of hitting vintage shots. 'The hip bothered me in the morning but it was 100 per cent okay in the afternoon,' he said. 'There is no excuse. In the afternoon Ernie never made a mistake.'

Early-morning fog, that lingered until early afternoon, delayed the start by two hours until 11 o'clock for this eagerly- awaited confrontation between the two best young golfers in the game. Olazabal is 28 and Els turns 25 tomorrow. The apparent languor with which Els generates his immense power is not so much enviable as almost indecent. But there is more to golf than booming 300-yard drives, or else Els and John Daly would win everything, and Olazabal has a fiercely competitive matchplay temperament forged in the crucible of four Ryder Cup matches.

The last time these two were in close competition was just two weeks ago at the German Masters, when Seve Ballesteros got the better of both of them in a three-way play-off. Els had beaten Ballesteros in a wonderful match here on Friday, but it was Olazabal who delivered the first blow yesterday, capturing the opening hole with a par when Els missed the green with his approach. That established a pattern for the morning: Els would lose holes and he would win them, while Olazabal compiled 15 pars and three birdie fours to be two up.

Els won the third and eighth holes with birdies, but lost the fourth and seventh through his own mistakes. Into the back nine, he continued to squander the advantage earned by his prodigious hitting. He missed the green on the 11th with a sand-wedge and took a bogey, but at the 13th he displayed his abundant talent with a towering six-iron to three feet for a birdie. After admiration, infuriation. He lost the 17th, where he blocked his drive and then he underhit his pitch, leaving himself hopelessly vulnerable to a perfect birdie four from his opponent.

Resuming at two up, Olazabal had birdies from 12 feet at the first and from a yard at the second to go four up. 'He had me worried then,' admitted Els. But now Els had his game under control. He won the third by chipping in from 40 feet and the fourth after Olazabal could only manage a par five. When Els birdied the eighth and the 11th, they were all-square. Then Els's par at the 13th, which saw Olazabal's only bogey, gave him the lead for the first time. For Olazabal, there was no way back.