So formidable is Ernie Els over 36 holes at the HSBC World Match Play that he has only lost once since 2000. Today the South African will be aiming to win the title for a seventh time but standing in his way is the solid form of Angel Cabrera, who defeated Els in the first round last year.
This is a heavyweight contest to savour and the perfect prologue to the Rugby World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Argentina tonight. It is the third meeting between the nations this week and it will be the decider, Cabrera having beaten Retief Goosen on Thursday after Els had beaten Andres Romero on Friday.
Cabrera insists he is not a rugby man at all. "No, no, just golf," he said. Els played the sport as a youngster and has a ticket for tonight's game, in the box of Johan Rupert. He also has a landing slot for his private jet at an airfield close to the Stade de France. Whether he picks up the first prize of £1 million or the consolation of a mere £400,000, his expenses will be covered.
But Els, who is desperate to win for the first time this year, said: "I've still got to take care of my business. Everything else is a bonus. I'm not going to rush for the sake of it. If there's time I'd love to go and see the game, if not I'll watch it on television."
Both Els and Cabrera, the US Open champion, were members of the International team at the Presidents Cup. They teamed up for the opening foursomes but came away empty handed when Els missed a two-footer at the 18th for a half. "Angel is still angry at me," Els said.
At this event, Els has won 25 of his 30 matches and is an accumulative 204 under par, the first man to get to such a tally. Yesterday he faced Henrik Stenson, who won the WGC Accenture Matchplay in Arizona in February. There the matches are virtually all over 18 holes and on that basis the Swede would have won yesterday. Els three-putted the second and Stenson was one-up for most of the morning, a score he lunched on after his winning birdie at the 18th.
But Els is vastly experienced at this format and having putted poorly he worked on a fix at lunchtime. Holing a 12-footer at the first to level the match turned the momentum his way but he did not get in front until the seventh. There he two-putted the tricky green, while Stenson three-putted. "It was a relief to finally get my nose in front," Els said.
Birdies followed at the next two holes and he was three-up. Stenson won the short 10th and Els found himself battling for halves to maintain his lead. He single-putted seven out of eight greens before securing a 3&2 win. "I putted awfully this morning but the putter saved me this afternoon," he said.
Cabrera, loping along like a giant rambling over the pampas, is 32 under par for his six rounds this week and looks as comfortable on the West course as the resident Els. His power is fuelled by red meat and red wine and it led to a 2&1 win over the American Hunter Mahan yesterday. At the 18th at lunchtime he hit a three-wood to five feet and was conceded the eagle to go three-up.
Five holes later, at the fourth in the afternoon, he added another eagle by holing from 18 feet; that put him six up. But to his eternal credit, Mahan was not finished and his last 14 holes included eight birdies. He won four of the next six holes, holing a putt from long range for a two at the 10th.
The 25-year-old was picked by Jack Nicklaus to play in the Presidents Cup last month and the matchplay qualities he has shown here may well be put to good use in the Ryder Cup next year. "He played well and it was not my mistakes," Cabrera said. "It was a tight match but I knew I had to keep playing as I was."
Watching the play yesterday were a group of 15 youngsters from the Golf Roots scheme, supported by DJ Spoony in conjunction with the Golf Foundation. Spoony paid £2 to Mike Round, the chief executive of the Golf Foundation, to highlight the organisation's fundraising initiative for every golf club member in Britain to donate that sum every year. If it was taken up by everyone it would bring in almost £2m annually.
"We don't benefit from the work we do but all the other levels of the game above us do," said Round. "Golf needs us to do this work and we have ever-growing demand for it." Around 500,000 youngsters a year are exposed to golf through the Golf Foundation and in the last two years 7,500 new junior members have joined golf clubs.
Tri-golf and Golf Xtreme are products for primary and secondary schools respectively and Golf Roots is aimed at showing the game to young people from the inner cities. Round said: "The youngsters we have here today, some will go on to become keen golfers, one may even compete in an event like this, but others may become involved in the many different aspects of the golf industry. All of them will be able to use the skills they learn in all areas of their lives."
The way Els battled through to beat Stenson was a prime example of what Round was talking about. "I can't imagine another sport that tests you mentally like this game," he said.
"You have to find a way of countering your feelings when things don't go your way. I didn't play better than Henrik today but I guess it was persistence that got my through."
Watch the final day of the World Match Play on BBC2 today, from 12.10pmReuse content