Els bows to the inevitable after opening salvo

Runner-up in the first two of this year's major championships and a winner at Loch Lomond last week, Ernie Els came to the Open as the player most likely to give Tiger Woods a run for his money.

Runner-up in the first two of this year's major championships and a winner at Loch Lomond last week, Ernie Els came to the Open as the player most likely to give Tiger Woods a run for his money.

When Els led Woods by a shot after the opening round, his 66 the week's equal best score, people who had taken him at 16-1 were encouraged to believe that the tournament favourite would be given plenty to think about.

It's easy to be fooled by the languid swing and easy going manner that characterises Els's presence on the golf course. Lovely rhythm but a tough competitor, too, as the tall South African proved when winning two US Opens before his 28th birthday and climbing to the third place in the world rankings he presently holds.

The past two years, however, have seen an interruption of the form that established Els in the small group of players who can, on a good day, think of coming close to the exceptional standards Woods is setting. First, there was a debilitating back injury then the arrival of a daughter whose birth in May last year caused a revision of Els's priorities.

Els's victory at Loch Lomond was his first for 16 months (he finished second to Vijay Singh in this year's Masters and, by his own admission, found it embarrassing to be 15 shots back when runner-up to Woods in the US Open at Pebble Beach). And it led him to think of mounting a challenge at St Andrews.

Confidence was further raised by his opening 66 but Els lost momentum in the second round when he could shoot no better than level par while Woods was moving forward. Saturday brought more disappointment. Els returned two under but let his round go at the 12th when he drove into a bush and had a double-bogey. For a reason known only to himself Els scorned his driver, took a three-wood and paid a heavy price. With his length he could have driven the green and set up a birdie opportunity so it was as though three and not two shots had gone.

When Woods birdied the 18th on Saturday evening to stand at 16 under, Els privately conceded that his chance had gone. Normally open and frank under interrogation, he refused all interviews, going off to lick his wounds.

When Els teed off yesterday it could be sensed that many people were with him. Holding nothing against Woods, they nevertheless wanted more than a procession and saw in Els a player who could yet make a game of it. He heard shouts of "come on Ernie," and saw South African flags along the ropes.

This helped to get Els in the mood and he soon gave his many supporters something to think about. A fine opening drive followed by a controlled approach set up a birdie from 10 feet and the ball went in without touching the sides.

Els had to settle for par at the next but suddenly he was on fire, rifling his second to birdie range at the third and getting it. News of Els's progress had quickly spread, and where the following crowd had been relatively thin it began to grow, becoming more and more animated. "Maybe, Tiger's not going to get things his own way, maybe we have a game," somebody said.

Immediately, Els birdied again, getting to 11 under despite the strong breeze that caused problems for his playing partner, Steve Flesch. It was about this point that Els seemed to feel that anything was possible.

The par-five fifth hole was not at its most inviting and Els chose not to be adventurous, this proving a wise policy when Flesch's approach to a difficult pin position dropped into a deep gully and his attempted putt up the hill rolled back at his feet. Els took a safer route and made another birdie to cause an explosion in the audience.

Els went on to birdie the next. Now it was interesting. He was still four behind Woods but on fire. However, after just missing a birdie at the eighth Els got stuck, his putter no longer working as well for him.

Then to the 12th, which had proved his undoing on Saturday. Similar shot, similar result. Slice right, not into the same bush but equally frustrating. Better result, though. Els escaped with his par.

Unfortunately that was more or less the end of his challenge. He was back where he began on the first tee, playing for second place.

When Els came to speak about his efforts in the tournament an air of deflation was obvious. "Deep down I didn't come here expecting to win," he said. "And you know, it's hard. Hard to sit here and realise how good Tiger is. In one way it's unique but in another difficult to live with. The rest of us are playing one tour and he's playing a tour of his own."

Els admitted that he went to the first tee with no great optimism. "At times this week I've played up to my best, but others I've been mediocre. Brilliant on the first day, indifferent on the next. But even if I'd been at the top of my form all week I don't think I could have beaten Tiger."

Then Els sighed and shook his head in resignation. A great golfer and fortunate to be born into the era of a genius.

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