Brian Viner: Easy does it as Ernie joins biggest draw at top of bill

To call Woods quite a good front-runner is like calling Michael Schumacher a nifty driver

With Ernie Els breathing down the neck of Tiger Woods, and with Els himself feeling the warm breath of Chris DiMarco and Retief Goosen, the 135th Open Championship, at its halfway stage, features three players in the top four who have 15 major championships between them. So much for those who suggested that Hoylake would not sort out the men from the boys.

The biggest of those men, the one they call the "Big Easy", although he grimaces when he hears it because he feels that it conveys altogether the wrong idea, is Els, who yesterday pieced together a superb 65 to match the course record that Woods and DiMarco had established earlier in the day.

Woods will accompany Els in the last pairing this afternoon, with Els' childhood friend, Goosen, just ahead of them. It is a lip-smacking prospect.

To force his way to the top of the bill for the weekend, the South African had to be at his magnificent best, less than a year after enduring knee surgery to ligament damage so serious that there was a chance he might never play top-level golf again. He birdied all four of Hoylake's par fives, and had another three birdies with no bogeys to be out in 32 and back in 33.

Like Woods, he played conservatively, laying up short of the fiendish fairway bunkers and rarely reaching for the driver.

It is a course that rewards conservatism, but boldness, too, at the right time. DiMarco, almost unbelievably, had earlier said that it reminds him of the Augusta National, which is rather like comparing a fish with a bicycle.

What he meant, he elaborated, was that you can't always attack the pin, but must play for the part of the green that affords the best chance of getting down in two or, ideally, one.

Els did that wonderfully, single-putting the third, fifth and sixth for birdies. He two-putted the 16th, but then he had reached the green with a drive and a six-iron. The 16th, for the record, measures 554 yards. Even with the following breeze that got up as the afternoon wore on, that is a long way. Clearly, the modifications to his swing that he has been working on with his coach, David Leadbetter, have been paying off.

Afterwards, Els admitted that he had started out on his round with Woods' total of 132 very much on his mind. "Obviously he's a great player," he said, "but if he's 12-under there's some birdies to be made out there. I felt I had to get my share of them."

By the second nine, he knew that he needed to draw within touching distance of Woods. "I didn't want to get crazy aggressive, but I needed to keep the pedal, you know, foot on the pedal, or whatever you call it. As you know and I know, he's quite a good front-runner, so you need to kind of reach out and hold him back.

"It will be very tough to do, but you need to get close to him. He's not going to back down from a lead."

To call Woods quite a good front-runner is like calling Michael Schumacher a fairly nifty driver, but then Els has never been one to exaggerate a situation. Of all the men remaining in this field, he might just be the one best-equipped to prevent Woods from lifting the claret jug for what would be the third time, but the first time away from St Andrews.

Els is 9-4 to win it himself for a second time. But to do so, it will not just be Woods that he has to beat; there are some other seriously heavy hitters lurking with intent.

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