It's Tiger, or Els...

Big hitters post sizzling second-round 65s to take control at Hoylake

Until Ernie Els relocated the keys to his majesty here yesterday evening, the Championship everyone had been calling the "open Open" had seemingly been shut with one almighty bang. Tiger Woods into the cup from 212 yards with a four-iron... It is already written in golfing folklore, underlined in giant, flashing capitals.

The leaderboard says the eagle on the 14th, which lit up his 65, sent Woods to 12-under, one clear of Els. But this narrow advantage does not appear to do the moment at 12.17pm its full justice. That was more than a great golf shot in a great golf round. It was a statement that Tiger is back and that an 11th major is surely in the offing.

Naturally, Ernie would doubtless disagree and he can present an awfully persuasive case after his own 65 that matched Woods' for both skill and control. But what it did not have was the wow factor, the instant of genius, which, of course, provides a momentum all of its very own. And when it is considered that the South African has never overtaken Woods in a major in which he has been leading, then his task still looks mountainous, however high his talent.

That is not to say that Els is not capable of turning the weekend into a modern-day Turnberry and reprise the unforgettable scenes of 1977 when Tom Watson did the unthinkable to Jack Nicklaus. The rest have certainly been left behind, with another two shots back to Chris DiMarco in third. This race has two horses and 70-odd also-rans written all over its form guide. Tiger must still be odds-on, though.

When the world No 1 bogeyed the third there was no hint of the carnage he was to wreak, as the rustiness caused by a long grieving period for his father looked still to be restricting his talent. But Woods, himself, was under no such illusion, no such panic. He had a game plan for dominance and was sticking to it, taking irons off the tees that would sometimes leave him 40 yards behind his playing partners, Nick Faldo and Shingo Katayama, while accepting that control and not aggression would be the favoured route. All but with the putter, of course.

The 30-year-old fairly rammed home the 20-footer on the fourth, the 12-footer on the fifth and, most thrillingly, the 60-footer on the eighth for a hat-trick of birdies that moved him to seven-under and within sight of the lead. It was breathtaking stuff, but was about to become breathless.

For after two more birdies on the 10th and 11th, he came to the 14th in a tie with DiMarco. A flick down the fairway with a two-iron was merely normal for his round but his approach from there was totally abnormal. Using a television tower as his sighter, he gave it some air, holding it up in the breeze, landing it on the edge of the green. From there it shot forward and appeared destined to finish 20 feet away before the hole intercepted.

The crowd went mad but not wildly so - either because of shock or simple reverence - and Tiger turned to his caddie and asked: "Is it in?" "It's sure close," said Steve Williams, but it was not until a TV man confirmed it, that the celebrations could begin. What celebrations? A simple wave and a show of the ball to the fans and Tiger was off. He still had work to do.

But even this look-ahead go-getter must have been struck by what had just come to pass and the manner in which the Championship had apparently changed in an instant. With DiMarco ironically bogeying just as Tiger's Nike was disappearing, the difference from nothing was now three, a deficit which remained in place when Woods birdied the 16th.

Surely it was over? "It's never over," replied Woods as if he knew what his friend from South Africa was about to do.

For while Phil Mickelson, the supposed other half in the so-called Big Two, was struggling to shift his score - standing at four-under with two remaining - Els was nerve personified, ignoring Woods' morning glory to post what must be one of his most accomplished rounds.

Three birdies going out, four birdies coming back and not much danger in between, Els followed his "play it patient" plan to every tee. The last 12 months have been dominated by injury and frustration, but this 36 holes rekindled memories. "I have had a tough 12 months no doubt about it," said the 37-year-old who needed knee surgery after a boating accident on a family holiday. "But now I feel physically fine. I am ready to play again. I'm ready for this weekend."

As is Hoylake and all of golf for that matter. Els has turned the prospect of a procession into hopes of a duel. It was easy to feel sorry for the rest, though, especially DiMarco who has more in common with Woods than the 65 he conjured to jump to nine-under. Two weeks ago his mother died, yet the embodiment of America's new Ryder Cup team spirit has played on through the tears as he tries desperately to qualify for the K Club.

If it really is between two, then DiMarco should fear Retief Goosen most among the also-rans, the South African at eight-under after a 66. There are not many Europeans to watch out for, that is for sure. As Royal Liverpool's defences started to lower, out of the Ryder Cup men only Miguel Angel Jimenez is in the top 10 but even the Spaniard will feel aggrieved at a sloppily finished 70 after setting the pace in the early stages.

Otherwise, it is only Finland's Mikko Ilonen, also on seven-under, England's Greg Owen and Robert Rock on six-under and Spain's Sergio Garcia with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell on five-under, flying the flag. Was this not the major when the seven-year jinx was about to end? Tiger and Ernie have other ideas. This could be the battle that defines their rivalry.

Leaderboard

Leading second-round scores

132 T Woods (US) 67 65
133 E Els (SA) 68 65
135 C DiMarco (US) 70 65
136 R Goosen (SA) 70 66
137 M A Jimenez (Sp) 67 70; A Scott (Aus) 68 69; M Ilonen (Fin) 68 69

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