Els strolls to victory with Open intent

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The Independent Online

As statements of intent go, Ernie Els' five-shot victory in the Scottish Open here yesterday was almost Churchillian in its magnificence. "Now to fight them on the beaches," the South African must have been thinking as he flew down to the south coast last night to defend his Open crown.

On this form perhaps only Tiger Woods at his best can stop Els from becoming the first since Tom Watson in 1983 to win back-to-back Claret Jugs. Yesterday's success was the fifth win in 19 tournaments this year for Els and although Woods' record of four in 11 puts this into some sort of perspective, it is still a remarkable effort. While the world No 1 was spotted practising at Royal St George's, his biggest rival was matching his five-shot victory at the Western Open a week earlier. Golf has built itself up like this before, but Sandwich may just host the duel that the whole game is desperate to witness.

Yesterday there was no such competition as Els disposed of Darren Clarke and Phillip Price without having to draw sweat in the blazing sun, never mind his weapon. Clarke did threaten to make a fight of it, getting to within three shots of the lead after his playing partner had bogeyed the 2nd and he had birdied the 2nd. But then Els got up and down from a greenside bunker on the 5th, holed an eight-footer for a birdie on the par-five 6th and, with Clarke failing to convert his own 15-footer there, he was four behind again and his challenge was effectively over.

A birdie three at the 10th was flanked by four ugly bogeys, on the 9th, 11th, 12th and 13th, and the Ulsterman did well to keep his composure to pick up three birdies coming in to share second place with Price. The Welshman should have made the runner-up position his own, but missed a six-footer on the last that cost him more than £50,000. Still, after collecting £330,000 for his victory in the European Open last week and £190,000 here, Price will probably not be too disconcerted. "After two weeks in contention I am absolutely smashed," he confessed.

Neither would Els have been too distracted about the size of his cheque - some £366,000 - because, in truth, he has experienced more arduous journeys down to the cashpoint. He led from the first round and from there was never once headed. A 69 gave him a 17-under par total of 267 and the three bogeys that disgraced his card could probably be put down to the erosion of concentration such a large lead inevitably brings. A more accurate appraisal of his well-being could be gleaned from the 18th, where a loose drive behind a tree was followed by a chip out on to the fairway and a full wedge into two feet to save par.

"I won it on the first two days here," Els said. "In difficult conditions I played as well I can. It's not an easy thing to lead from day one and not get ahead of yourself."

Indeed, it would have been easy for Els to have gotten ahead all the way to Sandwich, where he will play nine holes this afternoon. The ominous news for his rivals is that he is much better shape than last year when he arrived at Muirfield after a miserable Scottish Open. "Last year I had nothing to go to the Open with. I had to work my tail off with Lead [David Leadbetter] before the event started. That's not ideal preparation for a major. Believe me, it will be so much nicer going there this time."

Neither does he think the effects of this week will hinder him. "I've won back-to-back already this year. I had two weeks off before coming here so I should just be warming up next week." Warm enough to take on Woods? "Tiger is No 1 in the world, we all know that. But if I can play the way I know I can play, then I know I can challenge him."

One man happy just be in the same field will be Ireland's Gary Murphy, whose closing 67 not only gave him fourth place and his best finish on the European Tour, but also one of the 15 Open places on offer here. David Howell ensured he won the final place in the mini Order of Merit to join Ian Poulter, Alastair Forsyth, Philip Golding, Soren Kjeldsen, Greg Owen and Mark McNulty. Making the trip with Murphy as the top eight non-exempt finishers were Iain Pyman, Mark Roe, Charl Schwartzel, David Lynn, Nick O'Hern, Rolf Muntz and Raphael Jacquelin.

These did not include Andrew Coltart who is missing his first Open since 1993, the last time it was hosted at Royal St George's. The Scot thought about it, but just could not bring himself to pull out of his "home" Open on Friday despite only scraping in under the cut.

If this was bad news for Coltart's fans, it was even worse for those who look to the astrology columns rather than the betting columns when they come to making their Open selections. The last two winners of majors, Mike Weir at the Masters and Jim Furyk at the US Open, were born on 12 May, 1970. So, spookily, was Coltart. Alas these punters will now have to look elsewhere. Ernie Els might not be a bad place to start.

SCOTTISH OPEN (Loch Lomond) Leading final scores (GB & Irl unless stated):267 E Els (SA) 64 67 67 69. 272 P Price 67 68 68 69; D Clarke 69 70 64 69. 274 G Murphy 70 69 68 67. 275 G Evans 71 71 68 65; P Lonard (Aus) 70 68 68 69; I Poulter 70 68 68 69. 276 M Roe 72 68 71 65; I Pyman 69 71 67 69. 277 P Casey 69 74 68 66; C Schwarzel (SA) 75 68 67 67; B Dredge 69 68 70 70; A Forsyth 72 69 66 70. 278 A Hansen (Den) 72 69 72 65; K Ferrie 72 72 68 66; D Lynn 70 70 70 68; L Westwood 71 72 67 68; D Howell 66 73 70 69; N O'Hern (Aus) 72 72 65 69. 279 R Muntz (Neth) 72 70 72 65; P McGinley 73 71 67 68; B Davis 71 70 69 69; R Jacquelin (Fr) 72 70 68 69.