Only a month away now, the Masters is beginning to come into focus. Apart from Tiger Woods, obviously, the attention appears to be settling on Ernie Els as the current form horse. His countryman, Retief Goosen, and possibly Jose Maria Olazabal will dispute that, but Els has the opportunity here today to win for the third time in six weeks.
The South African, at 13 under par, goes into the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic with a three-stroke lead over Sweden's Niclas Fasth. A week ago, Els led Woods by eight strokes at the Genuity Championship at Doral and needed most of that cushion to see off the world No 1 and win the tournament.
Only one other player is within seven shots of the lead, another Swede, Carl Pettersson, whose 65 yesterday was the lowest round of the week at the Emirates club. Compared to last week, the challenge awaiting the double US Open champion today is numerically more taxing, but then he does not have the best player in the world, clearly rejuvenated as the US Tour hit his home state of Florida, breathing down his neck.
"Well, I've got a three-stroke lead," Els replied when asked if he expected to win. "But Niclas is playing well. I'll be watching him." Indeed, the Fasth show cannot be discounted. "This course suits me," he said.
Over the first three days Fasth has made only two bogeys, both at the 17th hole. Yesterday's was caused by coming up just short of the green and then taking three to get down. He then parred the last, a par-five dog-leg left with a pond in front of the green, but in the manner he would like to repeat should he require a five at the hole to win today.
With a three-iron in his hands from the middle of the fairway, Fasth failed to negotiate the last 10 per cent of the 220 yards he had to the green. After taking a drop from the pond, his pitch braked right on cue only six inches from the hole. "It felt better walking off with a five than it would have with a six," he said. "I never felt comfortable over the second shot. It felt like I was rushing."
The penultimate twoball of Fasth and John Bickerton were on the referee's clock for the last four holes, though the Swede had been used to the situation over the first two days when he had been drawn in a group with Nick Faldo.
Fasth's only victory to date came at the Madeira Island Open two years ago. His golf now is of a higher class and he is justifying his status as a European Ryder Cup player. "I improved my swing over the winter and though it took a few tournaments to feel comfortable, I felt confident after the World Match Play," Fasth said. In California, he got to the third round before losing in extra holes to Paul Azinger.
Though serious-faced over the ball, Fasth is a constant yapper to his caddie and does not take himself too seriously. When his trousers split during the second round, he said: "I thought it was pretty funny but no one else laughed." As he was at the ninth, he could nip to the locker room for a replacement pair.
For much of the round, Fasth, who scored 69, either led or was tied with Els, so the eventual margin was slightly misleading. The Emirates course tends to bring the best players to the fore and this year the rough and the firmness of the greens has stiffened the challenge. Thomas Bjorn's winning score of 22 under from last year will not be threatened.
Charlie Wi, the overnight leader, was hoping to bring honour to Korean men's golf – Se Ri Pak is the country's most famous player – but slipped back with a 77. The afternoon sea breeze was making scoring even more difficult.
Els's 67, with five birdies in the last 10 holes, would have been better but for a double bogey at the short seventh. His first effort came up short in the pond, his second tee shot just avoided a repeat. There were few other errors from the South African, although his pulled approach at the 14th caused him to indulge in a moment of racket abuse. "I am enjoying my game at the moment and I enjoy this course," Els said. "It is playing tougher than in all the years I have been coming here."
Els has not been to the Middle East for the last four years but he is a former winner here, in 1994. Twice before he has won back-to-back tournaments, including the US Open and the Buick Classic in '97.
"That is not in my mind," he said. "This is a new week. It was a long flight over from Florida and that was enough to clear my mind. It is like being on a different planet here."
Dubai is home to a seven-star hotel built in the Gulf Sea. Only the winner will be able to afford dinner.