Els beats the elements as Bjorn looks born again

Big Easy benefits from fortnight off as Tiger faces losing his last strokeplay title
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The Independent Online

If we have been told once, we have been told 12 times: the Ryder Cup was great but it is now time to move on. The members of Europe's victorious team at Oakland Hills have had a rapturous welcome home, and particularly in these parts for the Irish triumvirate, but there is nothing more certain in golf than that there will be a tournament every week.

Bernhard Langer reckons major champions will emerge from the dozen who inflicted the worst-ever drubbing on the Americans. "I believe he is right," Sergio Garcia said, "but we won't start to know that for another six months or so."

What to do in the meantime? The AmEx World Championship is still an event finding its feet but, at least in essence, it is a title that should mean something more than the ordinary. The first prize of $1.2m (£665,000) captures the imagination more for those from outside the US Tour, but competing against most of the best players in the world - Vijay Singh is at home clearing up after Hurricane Jeanne, and Phil Mickelson is absent for unspecified reasons - is motivation enough.

Given that Darren Clarke is the only European to have won a World Golf Championship, it is about time he had company. Mind you, Ernie Els has not won one either, although he could do something about that today. After three rounds at Mount Juliet he leads by one from Thomas Bjorn. Els had an opportunity to overtake Tiger Woods as the world No 1 earlier in the year, but instead saw Singh dethrone the Tiger. A two-week break, although he did watch the Ryder Cup from his London home, has done wonders, and he battled the elements again yesterday for his 68.

Bjorn is an interesting case as his nearest challenger, given that the last time the Dane was in Ireland it took only seven holes at the European Open before he exited stage left pursued by demons. His form deteriorated to the extent that he was not even considered as a possible wild card for the Ryder Cup team.

Langer, however, considered Bjorn an ideal man to be one of his assistants, and it was a role that Bjorn threw himself into. "It was inspiring to see how well the guys played, but I also thought how on earth was I going to be able to beat them ever again," Bjorn admitted. A 66 yesterday was a further sign that rejuvenation might be under way.

It was sunnier than earlier in the tournament, though a cold wind gusted and played tricks, making scoring difficult. But a look at some of the scores of the Oakland Hills heroes was rewarding.

Clarke has been suffering from a heavy cold, and on the first day started with 15 straight pars. "Not like me at all," he said. Yesterday there were eight birdies and a bogey only at the last in a 65. That left Clarke at eight under, but higher up the leaderboard there was a 67 for Garcia and 66s for Padraig Harrington and David Howell as both finished on 12 under. It was Howell's first experience of the Ryder Cup two weeks ago, and on the Saturday he came up with a huge victory in conjunction with Paul Casey.

"Playing in a big event and doing well, it doesn't make you a better player overnight," Howell said. "It doesn't guarantee you are going to play well, but it's more good experiences for the memory banks."

Harrington said he will need to calm himself down today if a first victory on home soil becomes a possibility. "It's a world championship event and it's in Ireland, but I can't think about that until it is all over," he said. "I finally figured out at the Irish Open in July that it is great to have everyone willing you on here, and the crowd has been fantastic again the last few days, but you have to get away from the expectations that brings. I've realised that they want you to win, but not to take that as an expectation."

Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Miguel Angel Jimenez have also figured on the leaderboard, and the leading American is Todd Hamilton, the Open champion but overlooked for a Ryder Cup wild card. Playing with his fellow Troon champion, Justin Leonard, Hamilton had a 69 to his companion's 77 and shares third place.

Tiger Woods, he of the bad back, finished at eight under and has plenty of work to do to claim a third successive title in this event. Unless he succeeds, he will have no strokeplay titles to his name. But finishing the tournament may be hard work anyway, given a dire forecast that means play will start early this morning.