Woods is human, Els is grateful

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The Independent Online

Damien McGrane will forever cash in pints of the black stuff about the day he beat his playing partner, one Tiger Woods Esq, although, when the truth be told and the bar drunk dry, the little Irishman will have to admit that it was on a day when almost everyone in the field beat one Tiger Woods Esq. To call this an off-day for Woods would be an understatement. By his standards he positively reeked.

The upshot of his 73 was that four shots separate him from the new leader of the Dubai Desert Classic, Ernie Els. The South African struggled to remember the last time he had bettered Woods's score by a full eight shots. Els's 65 was indeed a great round, but until he finished and watched Woods struggle in, he didn't realise quite how great.

The portents came as early as the very first drive, when Woods located the fairway bunker. True, he did then splash his mid-iron out to five feet, but this piece of magic was not to define his afternoon; the leaked tee-shot and the missed tiddler were. In all, Woods yanked three putts from under five feet.

By then, everyone had been expecting Woods to repair much of the damage with a birdie-birdie finish, but he followed his blip on the penultimate hole with a plop on the 18th. He dumped his approach into the water guarding the green and ended up carding a most unusual number on a par five – six.

It was his first over-par finish in 21 rounds (the last coming in the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship five months ago) and his first here at the Emirates course in his 19th round. After he had won by eight shots in San Diego last week and begun here like a legend possessed,this display was the last thing anyone was expecting. Least of all himself.

To his credit, Woods was, as always, prepared to front up to the media. When you have won six of your last seven strokeplay events, come second in the other and in this time posted a remarkable scoring average of 66.75, you can probably excuse yourself one sloppy round. But not the Tiger. "It's not good enough," he barked. "I didn't hit the ball close enough on the greens. But I'm not out of it."

Els knows that only toowell. His swing appeared more effortless than it has for manya year and, blessedly, the smile returned to a countenance that has looked worryingly vexed of late. The 10th summed up his magnificence. A five-wood was struck 266 yards to within afew feet, and the eagle was followed by a run of three birdies in seven holes.

"I thought at the start I probably needed two 64s to have half a chance," said Els, "but I still think I need another really low one tomorrow. I can't see Henrik and Tiger and the other guys not shooting low."

Henrik is Stenson, the defending champion, who fired a 67 to lie one behind Els at 10 under. The Swede has two second places in the past two weeks to his ever-more imposing name and may well be the most likelyvictor. Saying that, England's Lee Westwood's form has been almost as purple, and at eight under he is far from done.

But what of McGrane? He came back well in his 72 to remain at seven under, and so the player ranked 319th earned himself the right to tee it upfor the second day running with the world No 1. But it can't all happen again. Can it?