Golf / US Open: Fiery Els burns off Montgomerie

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The Independent Online
AFTER a dramatic day's golf in the third round of the US Open here, the stage is set for a rousing conclusion to the performance tonight. The 54-hole leader is the 24-year-old prodigy from Johannesburg, Ernie Els, whose five-under-par 66 yesterday gives him a total of 206, seven under par.

Frank Nobilo of New Zealand relishing an exceptional week, is on five under after a 68. On four under par are Colin Montgomerie, Hale Irwin, who took six at the last, Loren Roberts, after a 64, and Tom Watson, who nearly won the US Open here in 1983 but has not won in his home country since 1987. Greg Norman, the world No 1, is still in it at two under par after a 69, although Jack Nicklaus is not after a 77.

The two-shot lead that Montgomerie took into the torrid afternoon was quickly under fire as several golfers set about burning up the course. The pyromaniac-in-chief was the huge- hitting Els, who has had four top-10 finishes in his six major championships to date.

Els set about his job to such devastating effect that by the time Montgomerie had parred the first two holes to stay at six under par, he found that Els overtaken him, even though the South African had begun proceedings four shots off the pace. Els hit approach shots to six inches at the first and eight feet at the second and sank both putts for birdies. At the fourth he rolled home a 40-footer for an eagle three. That got him level with Monty. At the fifth, his shot finished two feet from the cup and that putt went in, too.

Commendably unfazed by this fireworks display, Montgomerie replied by hitting his second shot stiff at the third, which meant they shared top billing at seven under par. Not for long. Els birdied the long ninth to reach the turn in 30, making him one of 16 co-holders of the US Open nine-hole record. And when Montgomerie dropped shots at the fifth and seventh, Els had a three-shot advantage over the pack - which lasted for as long as it took for him to compile a double-bogey at the 10th.

Like Watson before him, Montgomerie then eagled the ninth from 20 feet to assume the outright lead again at seven under par. The back nine witnessed fewer fluctuations, but wayward drives cost Montgomerie bogeys at the 11th, 14th and 18th, and three putts were similarly expensive for Els at the 16th, although he rapidly alleviated the pain caused by that blemish by holing for birdies at the last two holes.

Roberts had matching halves of 32 for his 64, the lowest round of the week. His back nine in particular required considerable application. Four times he got up and down from sand to save par, and all day he only used his putter 24 times, including one from 60 feet at the 16th. Primarily renowned prior to this season for having amassed over dollars 2m ( pounds 1.3m) in prize money without winning a tournament, Roberts remedied that fault in March and is now in contention to win a major championship.

The more spectacular scoring yesterday demonstrated that when rain alters its greens from the consistency of concrete to the texture of grass, the ferocity of Oakmont's reputation exceeds its genuine fearsomeness. Seve Ballesteros got in on the act as well, with five consecutive threes from the sixth, including two birdies and an eagle at the ninth, which temporarily propelled him to one under par for the championship.

From a British perspective, this has been Montgomerie's week so far. Despite being as discomfited by the intense heat and humidity (which have both lurked around the 95 mark) as one might expect of a man his size, he has looked a big enough golfer to become the next European, the seventh among his contemporaries, to win a major championship. His vital statistics show him to be 6ft 1in, 15st, 31 next Thursday, winner of five European tour events and top of last season's Order of Merit.

His next career move needs to be the securing of a major championship, and he considers the US Open to be the one most likely, and not merely because of his third-place finish two years ago. Montgomerie's main strength is that his game has no recurring weaknesses. His temperament can be as hot as the temperatures here, and the wheels have occasionally been known to come off the pram after he has thrown out the teddy, but generally his swing is reliable and his putting assured.

US Open rough regularly reduces competitors to apoplexy on the tee, and the driver is rarely let out of the bag. Not so with Monty. He used it eight times on Friday. 'The driver is a strong club for me,' he said. 'I hit the ball down the left side of the fairway and usually fade it into the middle.' Often enough that he has led the European tour driving statistics for the last two years - 'and I don't make many bogeys from the fairway,' he noted after his second round.

If that sounded dangerously like tempting fate, Montgomerie duly suffered a dose of humiliation by hubris yesterday. He missed the fairway at the seventh, 11th, 14th and 18th and bogeyed all four. History simultaneously emphasises the extent of Montgomerie's achievement so far while underlining the difficulty of the task confronting him - only three non-Americans have won the US Open since the war. On the other hand, the last Scots-born champion was Tommy Armour in 1927. And he won it at Oakmont.

(Photograph omitted)