Karlsson and Els set the early pace

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The Independent Online

Robert Karlsson has the chance to successfully defend his Omega European Masters title here, but will have to hold off Ernie Els to do so.

Karlsson hit a first-round 65, six-under par, yesterday to share the lead with the world No 2 Els. That was the same score he started with 12 months ago on his way to a four-shot victory and fifth European Tour title.

A repeat on Sunday would go some way to make up for the disappointment of last week. Karlsson led by two shots going into the final round of the BMW International Open in Munich but struggled to a closing 74 and share of eighth place as Lee Westwood claimed his first win in almost three years.

The Swede is benefiting from a more laid-back approach and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere in the Swiss Alps. "Even if you are two-over par when you reach the seventh tee you get a big smile on your face," said Karlsson, who was referring to the views across to the Matterhorn but could also have meant the eagle he secured by driving the green on the short par four and holing from 30 feet.

This week sees the start of the Ryder Cup qualifying process and Karlsson would love to claim the £185,000 first prize and take a step to securing his place in the team after missing out by one place in 1999. "It's a different system this year so I don't think anyone really knows how it's going to work out," he said.

Els has never really threatened here, but seven birdies to follow his closing 64 in Munich, has encouraged him that he can retain his European No 1 place. "This is the first time I've been deep in the red [under par] on this course," said Els after matching Karlsson. "I can't really tell why, except my driving gave me some really good opportunities and I made a couple of putts. I don't think I've ever putted well here."

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