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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits