Westwood holds his nerve to earn tilt at Els

Ryder Cup hero stands between defending champion and record sixth victory in today's final

Ernie Els, on his 35th birthday, will play in the final of the HSBC Word Match Play Championship for a record seventh time today. The South African will be looking for another record, however, as a sixth title would nudge him ahead of those matchplay legends Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros, who have five each.

Ernie Els, on his 35th birthday, will play in the final of the HSBC Word Match Play Championship for a record seventh time today. The South African will be looking for another record, however, as a sixth title would nudge him ahead of those matchplay legends Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros, who have five each.

However, there is the little matter of Lee Westwood standing in his way, potentially a huge problem for Els. Westwood is the only player ever to have beaten him twice. In the second round in 1998 Westwood won 2 & 1, while in a semi-final in 2000 the Worksop player won at the 36th hole. It will be a meeting between the imperturbable and the unflappable.

"I'm sure Lee will have confidence from those wins," said Els. "But it's a new match and you have to adapt to whatever happens. It helps that I have a lot of experience of close matches here."

Another tight match should ensue today over the soggy West Course, just as Westwood experienced when Miguel Angel Jimenez came back from five down with eight to play to one down with two to play. But with darkness descending, Westwood finally completed a one-hole victory at the last.

Els defeated the injured Padraig Harrington 5 & 4, the Irishman's demise confirmed on the 14th hole of the afternoon round when he had a most inelegant stance in a bunker, could not keep his recovery on the green and missed a long putt for a half.

Harrington had his right thumb bandaged, and it was more the distraction than the pain that he found off-putting. The injury had occurred on Friday at the ninth when he played a three-iron and trapped the thumb between the club and a tree on the follow-through. "I couldn't put my thumb on the club in the morning," Harrington said. "I did in the afternoon, but it was awkward, to say the least. It distracted me a number of times, but I didn't make enough putts and made too many mistakes. Ernie didn't make any."

He rarely does. Els played some fine golf, occasionally missing the odd tee-shot on the right but only because on the back nine of the West Course you cannot go right. But some of his approach shots were scintillating, and early in the piece it was the fact that he missed four putts from inside eight feet on the first six holes that was a minor source of irritation for the Big Easy.

He said he had not quite found the pace of the greens but, with an inevitability that confirms the absurdness of the game, he banged in a 30-footer at the seventh to go ahead for the first time. He threw away the 15th and the 16th with bogeys, but from three up at lunch he was not troubled in the afternoon.

The odd hole was exchanged, but Harrington never got closer than three down and could not respond when Els went four up at the 11th by holing from 15 feet. Three victories are usually enough for Els to lift the trophy but this year, with the field expanded to 16, he has been playing since Thursday.

"Now I know what the other guys have had to go through," he said. "But it's worth it, isn't it? What we do for a living is like being in heaven." Especially when the office is just past the backyard - "The wife drops me off at the clubhouse," he said when asked how he got to work - and the prize on offer is £1 million, it certainly is.

"You put that thought right at the back of your mind while you're playing," he said. For the first time a proportion of the prize money will count on the European Order of Merit. There are also world- ranking points on offer. Having won last year, Els needed to reach the final to retain his world No 2 status ahead of Tiger Woods and behind Vijay Singh, but Westwood will be looking to move up from 39th position.

Westwood, though he resurrected his career a year ago and enjoyed a brilliant Ryder Cup, has not won this season. But after not managing to defend at the Dunhill Links Championship, he said he was perfectly happy with how his game had progressed this year. To Westwood, the key to matchplay is not to panic. It may be one reason why the 2000 champion has a record of nine wins and two defeats, which is a similar ratio to Els's 21 wins out of 25 matches.

Jimenez, who defeated Bernhard Langer, the slayer of Singh earlier in the tournament, in the unfinished quarter-final, won three holes in a row from the 11th and at the 16th hit his approach to an inch and a half, only for Westwood to miss from five feet for the half. The 17th was halved in par fives, though Jimenez's birdie chance touched the hole, and on they went.

But Westwood, who had not done anything wrong to be in this position, did not flinch, and a birdie at the last secured his place in the final.

Semi-finals

Ernie Els (SA) bt Padraig Harrington (Ire) 5 & 4

Lee Westwood (GB) bt Miguel Angel Jimenez (Sp) 1 up

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