Golf: The matchplay master

Ernie Els is back on familiar ground.
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the weaknesses of the Alfred Dunhill Cup is the necessity for the format to be medal-matchplay. The reason is so that every match goes up the 17th - the infamous Road Hole on the Old Course where a scorecard can quickly be transformed from a thing of beauty into the phone number for the Samaritans. What is lost, except if the game is close towards the end, is the intensity that comes with throwing away the scorecard and going head-to-head in more usual matchplay fashion.

Tiger Woods may have enjoyed himself at St Andrews but this week the world No 1 faces a new challenge at Wentworth. The Cisco World Match Play Championship features the classic format over 36 holes. How Woods negotiates the West Course, once known as the "Burma Road" for its length, but which is tightly patrolled by woodwork, will be every bit as fascinating as his experiences over the Old Course.

During his three US Amateur triumphs, Woods had to recover from large deficits in the 36-hole finals but this week the 22-year-old is likely to come up against one of the modern masters of the format in Ernie Els.

The South African lost to Vijay Singh in the final last year, his only loss in 12 matches at Wentworth after lifting the title in the three previous years. Singh, now the US PGA champion, Woods, Els and Mark O'Meara, the Masters and Open champion, will be the four top seeds who get a bye into Friday's second round. Woods and O'Meara, both clients of the International Management Group, would make the perfect final for the organisers - the International Management Group.

So Woods and O'Meara are likely to be kept on opposite sides of the draw, increasing the chances of Woods and Els meeting in the semi-finals rather than as the perfect denouement.

Singh lost to Els in the final in 1997. "It wasn't intimidating playing against Ernie by any means," said Singh, trying to explain what it is that makes the South African such a dominant force over 36 holes of matchplay. "But if you give away shots to Ernie, he is a very hard person to win holes from."

The list of Els' Wentworth victims includes Ballesteros, Olazabal, Montgomerie, Janzen, Langer, Elkington, Woosnam and Price. "I have played some good golf, beaten some good players and had some memorable matches over the last three years," said Els.

Why is he so suited to matchplay golf? "I think when you play strokeplay you look after your score. If you start making birdies and find yourself a couple under par, you start protecting your score sometimes. You look at the scoreboards and try not to lose your position in the field.

"In matchplay you are only as good as the last hole you have played. At other times you might be making doubles or triples, but in matchplay you have only lost one hole. That's the difference. You have to be a lot more aggressive in matchplay. The normal thing is to go for as many birdies as you can, although if your opponent is in trouble you can play safe."

Also, why does Els love the West Course? "It goes back to when I was second to Olazabal in the Volvo PGA Championship in '94. I really learned how to play the course. It suits my game. There are a lot of holes where you can hit three-wood or two-iron and then have a go for the flag. And at this time of year the course is always in such good condition and it is hard not to enjoy playing it."

Els was enjoying his golf at the start of the year, had come to be called "The Big Easy" and defeated Woods and Davis Love over 36 holes on the final day of the Bay Hill Invitational. But at the Buick Classic in June, he had to withdraw due to a back spasm and while he is much healthier now his game has yet to recover fully.

"The first half of the year I played really well," said Els, who will marry his fiancee Liezl Wehmeyer on 31 December. "I was on top of my game. I had a lot of confidence, won on the US tour, the European Tour and had a lot of top-five finishes. But from June until now, I haven't played very well, especially in the majors. I made the cut in each of the four majors but it doesn't mean very much when you are finishing 30th or 40th.

"The back problems came about because I was travelling too much and basically I just needed some rest. I have been exercising in the gym to strengthen the back but playing 32 or 35 tournaments each year and flying all over the place means you need some rest as well. It's been a disappointing season but I feel I want to play again now." Tiger beware.