Els and Woods play mind games in the sun

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The Independent Online

The further we disciples followed the progress of Tiger Woods and Ernie Els here yesterday the more the realisation dawned that the illustrious pair might not actually be showing us the path to the promised land.

As the humidity intensified and the clouds began to collect ominously, so did potential challengers to the pair's presumed dominance of this tournament. Beads of sweat began to appear on the defending champion's orange polo shirt. Surely not evidence that he had become aware of the increasingly congested leaderboard, which revealed that that the mercurial Sergio Garcia was closing on him with astonishing rapidity, followed by the Spaniard's playing partner, Jim Furyk? They would be followed by a host of others as, intriguingly, figures such as Angel Cabrera and Chris DiMarco offered evidence of their Championship credentials.

Perish the thought. Even without performing at the zenith of his powers, Woods retained control of his destiny. For all that this tournament transformed itself from a parched wilderness to a lush savannah in which considerably more than a lone Tiger and Springbok roam, we should probably not permit our imagination to run riot.

Woods starts today where he began yesterday, atop the leaderboard. With an impeccable sense of timing and composure, he recaptured the lead with a birdie at the last hole, after Els had been frustratingly close to doing the same for the first occasion. Both finished with a one-under-par 71.

It leaves the American once again master of all he surveys. And he is not a front-runner who comprehends the concept of capitulation. He has prevailed in all six of the majors he has led at the halfway stage, and all of his 10 major titles have been achieved when he has led with a round to play.

What yesterday did confirm was that the world No 1 had been been correct in his admonishment "we got a long way to go, man" when, on Friday, some were conveying him prematurely to his enthronement. What followed that second round, which contained an eagle two at the par-four 14th which had the men and women of Merseyside rising in the kind of raucous acclamation usually reserved for their footballing élite, was a timely reminder for those delving for superlatives with which to reanoint the king, of how capricious the old game can be.

Woods may have established a then course-record score in round two, but Els decreed that such a performance provided him with motivation rather than intimidation, despite conditions which had marginally deteriorated. As Friday progressed, it was no mirage in the heatwave but a posse, led by the South African, who was magnificent and relentless in his pursuit, with Woods in their sights.

Thus we were presented with what appeared to be the tantalising prospect of a confrontation to the death between two leviathans. DiMarco and Retief Goosen had also muscled into contention, but the belief was that only the ultimate victor would be left standing.

It was gladiatorial, not just physically, but in a battle of minds, and there was no doubting at whom the spectators, who strained their necks like meerkats to obtain a glimpse of the pair ­ the defending champion, Woods, and the 2002 winner, Els, who had both recorded 65 on Friday ­ principally directed their roars of allegiance as they set out.

It was not so much antipathy for Woods; rather it was a desire that this should remain competitive entering the final day, though one always suspected that those who anticipated a "Duel in the Sun" to challenge that at Turnberry in 1977, when Jack Nicklaus took a bullet to the heart from Tom Watson, the five-times champion, were guilty of somewhat overinflating the grandeur of the meeting.

So it transpired, on an afternoon in which Woods once again kept his driver in the bag. He has employed it just once during the tournament. "My strategy is what it is," he said. "You can't alter it. I hit the ball beautifully but didn't putt well." Els, who should perhaps have received a new epithet, The Big Uneasy, was equally dissatisfied. "I was out of sorts. But for my putter, I would have been out of contention."

Perhaps that wasn't entirely unexpected. Both these matinee idols' seasons have undergone a certain amount of reconstruction: the South African having had knee surgery 11 months ago following a jet-ski injury in the Mediterranean; the American's psyche presumably still requiring some emotional repair following the death of his father and mentor, Earl.

Certainly, it was by no means an auspicious start for Els, whose three majors reduce him to a mere mortal when compared with Woods' 10.

The man from Johannesburg went for glory after driving into the left rough off the tee, but instead found a greenside bunker short of the flag. Yet the character with the lumbering gait who looks as he strides down the fairway as though he has just returned from felling a redwood, was insouciance itself as he chomped on an apple and gently swivelled his hips as he waited for Woods to play.

Els spurned a putt for par and went to 10 under as his rival only narrowly failed with a putt which would have gifted him a birdie. Woods had to accept a par which established a two-stroke advantage.

Els swiftly atoned for that poorly judged opening hole in the best way possible; a birdie from 30 feet on the second. He briefly shared the lead as Woods bogeyed after an indifferent approach which ended up in sand and well short of the green.

Those two holes reflected their afternoons; yet satisfyingly for the uncommitted it left the eventual identity of the 2006 champion more impossible to predict by the minute ­ even if the tournament leader still burns bright.

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