Els resumes his place with the rest of the pack trailing the champion

In the whole damn shooting match everybody blinks before Tiger Woods. The aura surrounding the irresistible force is such that very few players believe, deep down, that they can beat him in a major championship.

After Saturday's dramatic third round the Wirral was awash with wishful thinking. Sergio Garcia, the young gunslinger from Spain, and Ernie Els, the "Big Easy" from South Africa, were among those lying in the shadows but when the saloon doors swung open only one man was standing.

A few years back, before Tiger took the professional game by the scruff of the neck, Els, a major winner and then some, identified Woods as about the only player on earth who could beat him. Since then the gap has got wider and yesterday the Big Easy may as well have been dreaming the Big Sleep.

Els's record in the Open has been impressive, highlighted by a triumph at Muirfield in 2002, but his name could have made the life of the engraver of the old silver claret jug a lot easier on half a dozen other occasions. When he lost a four hole play-off to Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon in 2004 nobody knew how much it took out of Els. Probably far more than he would care to admit.

This season he has been making a comeback from a knee operation and for any sportsman at any time going under the scalpel presents another huge question. Will the knee be the same, will it stand up to the pressure of the swing and a four-and-a-half-hour walk over a scorched links?

Because of his natural ability Els will be up there on the leaderboard but what hurts him, and everybody else, is that he will be a stroke or two behind Woods. Els would not have been dismayed yesterday to be partnering not the world No 1 but the New Yorker Chris DiMarco.

At the beginning - the first hole - everything went to plan. Els wrote down a neat par four and the American - both had resumed at 12 under for the championship, a stroke behind Tiger - dropped a shot. Misleading? Not half.

At the fifth hole Els made a move, but in the context of the competition it was almost as conservative as the true blue headquarters which is situated next to the Royal Liverpool clubhouse. The par fives at Hoylake may as well be a cashpoint to the players. This is where they hit the pin numbers and walk away with a warm glow.

Ernie got his first birdie at the 528-yard fifth with a confident putt of about six feet and at 13 under for the duration he was level pegging with Tiger. For the South African the duration, though, is what it was.

Els, who has a swing that a lot of people swoon for, struggled to keep the ball on the fairway and he did not get his second birdie until the 14th, by which time the game was not so much on as up and the only player on the links who was even remotely threatening Tiger was DiMarco.

If Els could not live with Tiger, he could not even live with his playing partner. But then DiMarco did compile a rather impressive 68. Ernie's 71, for the second day running following rounds of 68 and 65, was simply inadequate and he finished five shots adrift.

Whatever encouragement Els took from his four at the fifth was dispelled as he was playing the short sixth for behind him Woods had a made a decisive move. The champion did not birdie the fifth, he eagled it and in one fell swoop had gone from 13 under to 15. Garcia seemed to get shorter in stature and although Els kept smiling he too had no response to the man who, again, occupied the eyrie at the top of the leaderboard.

At the eighth Els could have gone out of bounds but had a lucky break from a mound. He did not make the most of it and instead missed a shortish putt - up to that point his work on the greens had been his saving grace - and the bogey five was followed by another at the 11th. Big Ernie went to the turn in 35 and came home in 36; DiMarco's figures were 35 and 33 and even that wasn't enough to worry Woods. He was resuming normal service, at least on the golf course, following the mourning of the death of his father Earl.

Nick Faldo, who was barely standing after an uncomfortable two rounds with the champ, tried to identify a weakness but if it sounded slightly plausible on Friday it sounded stupid last night.

"It doesn't sound great in the stats, does it?" Faldo asked when asked about Tiger's reluctance to hit a driver. The stats look just fine.

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