Els stalks the front-runners while Woods merely talks a good round

Either side of high noon, the world's two best golfers were faced with the oldest imperative of even the highest talent. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els had to show that they could deliver when the odds were at their highest, that really this 133rd Open belonged in one or the other's back pocket.

Either side of high noon, the world's two best golfers were faced with the oldest imperative of even the highest talent. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els had to show that they could deliver when the odds were at their highest, that really this 133rd Open belonged in one or the other's back pocket.

Now you only have to look at the red numbers on the big scoreboard to see the reality - and the dreamy wishful thinking - of a prospect that brought the first heavy drama to the great tournament yesterday.

Els has his doubts and his problems. His game is magnificent on the outside, but strangely vulnerable away from the blaze of his magnificently easy swing. He is just a month away from one of the most bruising experiences of his life, a last round 80 which deprived him of a chance to land his third US Open. Three months ago he had what would have been his first Masters jacket ripped away from him by Phil Mickelson on the last hole at Augusta.

But Els, unlike the man he is so close to supplanting as the most formidable golfer of the day, yesterday found much strength at those broken places. His second-round 69 followed a similar score on the first day and left him just three shots off the lead. Els was stalking the front runners - and casting a growing shadow over their efforts. Woods, despite double-speak to the contrary, was merely tagging on to their heels. Say it quickly and it sounds like sacrilege. But here, barring some astonishing eruption from the Tiger today, you just cannot find a way around it.

Given the weight of their ability, it was maybe inevitable that both Woods, the world's No 1, and Els, who can push the rival who once haunted his every working hour out of that distinction for the first time in two years if he wins his second Open title on Sunday, had custom-made opportunities. Unfortunately, as Woods finished his scrambling, angst-filled march around a course on which seven years ago he shot an unforgettably sublime third-round 64, and Els marched down the first fairway, there was an overwhelming sense that for both men these are times when the old certainties have never seemed further away.

Els's hang-dog expression confirmed such speculation when, after a superb birdie on the moonscape of the 10th, the hole which guards arguably the most formidable back nine in all of the game, he gave back the shot on the 13th. It was the face of a man who had finally discovered quite how fine the line is between the big winner and just another loser. But then the sheer weight of his game was beginning to re-emerge by the end of a round which for many became one of the tournament's most pivotal.

But it is Woods, hanging rather than lurking at the back of the leading pack, who remains most cause for a golfing aficionado's concern. Not only is the Tiger, who missed near gimme chances to save par on the 7th and 9th holes and spurned a birdie opportunity on the Postage Stamp 8th before settling for an even-par 71, apparently incapable of putting a serious move on a field which awaits his spasmodic charges with a dwindling level of fear, he also seems to be ever more ready to sneak away from his own unpromising realities.

Woods played a round which was almost uncanny in its lack of drama. It was a little like encountering Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton and hearing on their lips not soaring verse but the odd squeaky giggle. Woods, however, could not manage much more than a weak smile when he gave his own version of his round and his current place in the game.

Said Woods: "Obviously I dropped a couple of shots there on the front nine but overall I'm very pleased by the way I played today. The golf course was not playing easily, the guys are not going out there to shoot 63s or 64s and you've got to be very patient and I did that today.

"It was much more difficult. It was even more difficult on the easy holes going out and coming in there was a left to right wind and most of the pins were on the left side so it was impossible to get the ball close to the hole. For the last four rounds of competition I've played well - and I played well today."

Maybe this is really how the Tiger sees it. For the rest of us, it is a question of ransacking our memories and remembering how it was when it seemed that no situation was too tight, no challenge too great for someone who had announced his potential to be the greatest golfer of all time.

Yesterday, while he talked of his success in dealing with the hazards of the tough course - and scoring a 71 that caused not a ripple of the faintest excitement - the 44-year-old British veteran Barry Lane was charging up the leaderboard, along with an obscure American named Todd Hamilton, who had a run of eight failures in the PGA qualifying school. Skip Kendall, scarcely a household name, was moving from nowhere with a round of 66 - the kind of numbers the Tiger used to produce as a formality.

For Woods it was another occasion on which to delve for his last reserves of optimism. He declared: "I love my position in the tournament. With the wind blowing like this, none of the guys are going to run away with it. It means I'm right there with a chance going into the weekend." Meanwhile, Els shrugged and said: "I'm happy to be in this position. I was lifted by that chip at the 14th. It gave me a lot of encouragement, a lot of belief and there is never a time in golf when you don't need that." It was a truth that would have been cruel to pass on to Tiger Woods.

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