Ernie eases into showdown with Garcia

World Match Play Championship: Spaniard poised to inherit Ballesteros mantle in final test against South African
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The Independent Online

If Ernie Els was the natural successor to Gary Player at the Cisco World Match Play Championship, then Sergio Garcia may today show he is the heir to Seve Ballesteros as Spain's resident genius on the West Course at Wentworth. Player and Ballesteros both took the tournament to their hearts and share the record of five titles each.

When Els first arrived on the scene he looked as if he would quickly overtake his countryman and the Spaniard, but has been stuck on three victories for a while. Today Els, the Open champion, will appear in his fifth final, while the 22-year-old Garcia will play in his first on his third visit to Wentworth's autumnal classic. The Spaniard is about to buy Els's house in Orlando, but the price has been agreed and will not change due to the result today.

Garcia finally saw off the week's marathon man, Michael Campbell, at the 35th hole with a typical display of brilliance. Campbell hit a superb second shot on to the green at the par-five 17th but Garcia then chipped in for his eagle from 30 yards short of the green. "I was just hoping to get a four," Garcia said, "but five feet from the hole I thought it had a chance and it went."

Garcia came back from four down after 16 to Padraig Harrington on Friday and only got ahead against Campbell at the 30th. "I wouldn't say I have had a bad start, but the guys I've been playing have gone crazy at the beginning," said Garcia.

"But as long as you don't get five or six down you can come back because they are long matches. Hopefully, it will be a good final tomorrow."

Els, the world No 3 while Garcia is ranked only two places lower, wore down Vijay Singh, who was struggling with a shoulder injury, 3 & 2. Els has now won 14 out of 18 matches in the World Match Play. Given that he won his first 11 in a row, recently that record was not looking so good. He had actually lost four of out five prior to this year, dating back to the 1997 final against Singh, the man Els had beaten the previous year to win his third consecutive title. After celebrating his 33rd birthday on Thursday with a bye in the first round, Els has reproduced his earlier form by beating Colin Montgomerie 6 & 5, including a scintillating morning round of 60, and yesterday edging past Singh.

It is rare to follow up the quality of golf played by Els on Friday morning, but even allowing for the natural ups and downs of the game, Els was frustrated by his game yesterday. Fortunately for him, Singh was not at his best and handed the South African a dream start by bogeying the first three holes. Els was soon four up after five, and though Singh clawed his way back to only one behind, Els won the 16th and the 17th to be three up at lunch.

Given the dismal weather at the start of the week, this year's World Match Play has been played mostly in fine sunshine, if with a chill to the air. It was ironic that the best was seen in the rain on Friday morning and though there were clear skies yesterday, the sunshine did not inspire the competitors. With his second to the first after lunch, Singh pulled his five-wood into the trees and hit a woman, who was attended by a nearby St John Ambulance first-aider and told there was no permanent damage. With Singh going four down and then five down at the fifth, it looked as if the Fijian was entering terminal territory.

Els had pulled his tee-shot at the short fifth into a bunker and won the hole by holing out with his recovery shot. There was a roar from the gallery but, at first, hardly a flicker from Els before an ironic smile threatened to cross his lips.

While the Garcia-Campbell match was obviously more joyful, the atmosphere in the Els-Singh match was more doleful. It was as if the two giants of the game knew they were not producing the contest everyone had hoped to see.

Singh got a hole back with a birdie at the eighth and received some help from Els when the South African three-putted from off the green at the 11th, and drive into a ditch in the trees at the par-five 12th. At the uphill 13th, which begins the long march back to the clubhouse, Els put his seven-iron second shot to 15 feet and holed the putt to restore a three-up lead, the eventually winning margin. "Neither of us played as well as yesterday," said Els.

"We just couldn't get the putts in the hole but I was solid from tee to green. Sergio is a good friend of mine. He has a lot of energy and that will keep me going tomorrow."

There was not too much daylight left when the semi-finals finished, as the start had been delayed for half an hour due to a heavy overnight frost. Campbell, having already played 77 holes in two days to defeat Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, started the sprightlier to be three up after six. Nevertheless, at the par-five fourth, after Garcia holed from 10 feet for an eagle, Campbell had to hole from nine for the half.

A poor drive at the 17th from the Kiwi brought Garcia back to all square and it was not until the 12th in the afternoon that the Spaniard edged in front for the first time. He won the next as well and though Campbell took the 15th with a par, Garcia birdied the next and put a sudden end to the game at the 17th.

"It has been a long week," Campbell said. "But I've had a lot of fun."

Semi-finals Results
S Garcia (Sp) bt M Campbell (NZ) 2 & 1
E Els bt V Singh (Fiji) 3 & 2