Els banishes torments to find state of easy grace

Defending champion recaptures matchless swing to renew challenge after early difficulties provoke uncharacteristic show of frustration

Big easy was not so much out of character as his own head. He pounded it several times during an agitated conversation with his caddie, Riccy Roberts, after leaving himself critically short of the greens on the 11th and 12th holes.

This was a shocking, even disorientating image. Ernie Els is not supposed to do rage, and when he does there is a worry that the orbit of the earth may have taken something of a tilt.

But then, almost before it had begun, it was over and something rather wonderful happened. Els' head cleared and became once again arguably the most uncluttered in all of golf. There was an instant effect on his play. It became a thing of languid beauty once more and carried the reigning champion back into the 132nd Open that seemed to have passed him by on its first wind-blown day.

The odds against Els becoming the first successful defending champion since Tom Watson at Royal Birkdale in 1983 remain formidable, but on a course which retained the personality of a minefield despite yesterday's lighter airs, his three-under par 68 was a statement of daunting authority - and 10 shots better than his opening effort. It left him at four-over, which is not exactly a flaming arrow embedded in the leaderboard but there was no question it made its mark.

"There's no doubt I've got the wrong end of the draw," Els said, "but after some mistakes which made me angry, at least we're here for the week - and I'm definitely in with a chance."

He then lifted his young daughter, Samantha, on to his shoulders and marched amiably into the sun. So, inevitably, did everyone who had watched him fighting for his competitive life. Whatever the tension he carries, there are days when it simply dissolves in the matchless grace of his big, fabulous swing. This was such a day from the moment he and Roberts had their passionate conversation.

"I came out of that determined to make birdies. I knew if I didn't do that, I was out of it," Els said.

So he worked with an intensity that has never been intimately associated with his name, and if it was true that in the final holes it seemed that his game had been put back together so smoothly you could not begin to see a join, he was candid enough about the pressure that had come to him at various points in a round which was rarely far from being classic.

"At least I have a smile on my face today after that round," Els said. "I worked very hard - I got angry with myself, I got angry with the course and the tough pin placements, but I'm pleased I worked my way through it. The birdie at the second was very important because I had woken up feeling I really needed to get something going. I believed I could have played a lot better on the first day, and by the end of the round today I was very pleased. From tee to green I was as good as I could get, and I felt particularly good about that because to get there I had to get through quite a bit of anger.

"After making birdie on four and believing I was really on my way, I made a mistake on seven. I only had wedge into the green and made par when I should have made birdie, and I was very angry with that. Then on the 12th it came to a head when I was short of the green a second time. I had to get get my head straight."

On a day when the course, and its mocking pin positions, from time to time tore at the resolve of every player, you might have thought Big Easy was reliving a nightmare, and in a way he was because he knew that this was a tournament in which he should have been asserting himself as never before. He had the title and he had the game, and what happened after the moments of bleak truth short of the 11th and 12th greens brought soaring confirmation of this suspicion.

On the par-five 14th he played to the edge of the green with his second shot, then sent a 90-foot putt flying past the pin. His putt lipped out. On the 15th he produced a beautifully flighted iron shot which left him six foot from the pin, but the putt stayed a fraction short. In the end the conservative estimate was that he had missed 11 makeable putts. From tee to green, he had been a god - on the green he lacked for just a touch of sweetness in his stroke, the merest flicker of heat, and had they been there everyone, and not least Els, knew that the discussion would have been not of missed opportunity but masterpiece.

"The most important thing is not to complain about the pin placements - though they are really difficult and make it so tough to make par - but go out and just play well," he said. "I have to keep the momentum going and I have to keep grinding away and hope for the best. Always when you walk around you know you could have done better.

"Yesterday, for example, there was especially that stretch from four to seven when I definitely threw away three or four shots. That got me very hot, but I feel cool now. Yes, I feel I've come through something and I feel a lot better for it."

So did anyone who saw him. Whatever the outcome of the tournament, and the difficulties of the course, he played beautiful golf and if he felt anger it never began to consume him. He was asked what he knew about the Korean S K Ho, who briefly led the tournament. "Only," said Big Easy, "that he is the only man in the world with a shorter surname than me." It was a small joke from a huge man, a golfer whose game had cut through the wind and filled the sky.

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