Good news day for the Big Easy

With the exception of South Africa's defeat by England in the Rugby World Cup, which cost him £200 in bets with friends and members of the press, everything went Ernie Els's way yesterday.

He was confirmed as the No 1 on the European Order of Merit, and his 5 and 4 victory over Vijay Singh in the semi-finals of the World Match Play here gives him the chance of winning the £1m first prize along with a record-tying fifth victory in the 40-year-old tournament.

His opponent today will be Thomas Bjorn, who finally defeated the Open champion Ben Curtis at the 36th hole. It was a tense final few holes, but they could not match the dramatic turnaround of the top match, in which Els won a record eight holes in a row to go from four down to four up.

The previous record for successive holes won was seven by Tony Lema against Gary Player, from the 11th to the 17th in the morning of their semi-final in 1965. It was the famous match in which Player, seven down after 19 holes, eventually won at the 37th in the biggest comeback the event has seen.

The South African went on to win the tournament that year, the first of his five victories, a record later equalled by Seve Ballesteros and one that Els will be trying to share today. Els and Singh have been two of the more consistent supporters of this tournament from outside Europe, and this was their fourth meeting. Els won the final in 1996 and their semi last year, with Singh winning in the 1997 final.

No doubt, as he had intimated, the celebrations for Els's 34th birthday the previous evening were thoroughly enjoyable. Singh certainly played the better golf on another sunny but chilly autumnal morning. Els was more scrappy than is usually the case, although his only dropped shots were at the 13th and the 15th. Unfortunately, following the latter, he was four down.

Els drove into a bunker at the 16th, but an exquisite eight-iron to three feet set in motion his record run. He birdied each of the last three holes of the morning, holing from 15 feet at the 17th and Singh missing from five feet at the last for a half.

One down at lunch, Els briefly watched the start of the rugby and then went to the practice range. His birdies at the short second and the par-five fourth kept the run going, but he was also helped by bogeys from Singh at the first, the third and the fifth. The Fijian managed to halve the sixth but immediately lost the seventh to be five down.

The quality of the match around the turn was terrific, with Singh birdieing the eighth and the 11th, and the 10th halved in birdies and the 12th in eagles, where both men were putting from four feet. But it was at the 10th that it became clear Els would not be denied. Singh chipped in for his two but then Els holed a putt from 27 feet for the half and had the good grace to smile sheepishly.

"I gave it a whack and it went in," Els said. "I had to stand my ground because Vijay was coming back, and I was really pleased with my second shot at the 12th to not lose that hole.

"I was trying to find a swing thought all morning and finally found a good feeling on the 18th tee, and I took that with me to the afternoon. I knew I had to try something because Vijay was really dominating me, but I don't know what he had for lunch because he seemed to lose his rhythm in the afternoon."

Els was confirmed as the Order of Merit winner when Darren Clarke pulled out of the Madrid Open. Clarke could have just pipped the South African with victories in that tournament and the Volvo Masters, but when Els let it be known he would play at Valderrama if he needed to, Clarke had to concede. Even last-place money there would leave Els out of reach.

Els and Bjorn are neighbours on the Wentworth estate, and although they rarely get the chance to play socially, their daughters are friends and go to the same school. Bjorn was four up after 15 holes, but in the "rematch" from Royal St George's last summer Curtis showed his fighting qualities to square the match at the 10th in the afternoon.

Bjorn had his wobbles, not least when he lost the 16th by driving so far into the trees that he was up against a garden fence. But when he found the green at the last in two and Curtis thinned his third out of a bunker, the American conceded.

The Dane has had to come through from the opening day, while Els had a bye on Thursday. "Today was always going to be the tough day and I did get tired," Bjorn said. "Tomorrow I'm sure adren-alin will get me through.

"I'm up against the star of the field and a friend of mine, and I'm under no illusion about how difficult it will be, especially if Ernie plays as he did today."

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