Woods' stand-in Derksen leaves Els in the shade

By Andy Farrell
Monday 10 March 2003 01:00

About the only thing the Netherlands and China have in common in a golfing context is that they both have claims to be the birthplace of the game, something that is hotly disputed by the Scottish nation. Now there is another connection, and a bizarre one at that. Only a Chinese man and a Dutchman have prevented Ernie Els from winning his first six strokeplay tournaments of the year.

If the World Matchplay, where the South African lost in the first round, is discounted for a moment, Els has been in outstanding form over the usual 72-hole form of the game. Yesterday in the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic he was not only looking to defend the title but add a fifth victory in a season that is little more than a couple of months old.

He has come remarkably close to winning all six. He led by a stroke with one to play in Singapore but managed to lose to Lian-Wie Zhang, the first Chinese man to win on the European Tour. In other tournaments in Hawaii and Australia he has beaten some of the best players in the world by huge margins.

Once more Els looked to have victory in his sights at the Emirates. But then the 29-year-old Dutchman Robert-Jan Derksen played as has never played before in his life. The bare figures reveal that Derksen scored a final round of 65, with an eagle, five birdies and no bogeys, to finish at 17 under par, one ahead of Els, who closed with a 69.

This was the tournament that was meant to see the first real showdown of the year between Els and Tiger Woods. But Woods withdrew on the eve of the event because he was advised not to travel to the region by the American government.

Not even Woods might have caused Els the problems that were presented by Tiger's replacement, Derksen, the last man into the field. Els has clocked up the air miles this season but so has the Dutchman. Unfortunately for Derksen he never got to play in Johannesburg or Singapore, having been the first alternate on each occasion.

This is the fifth season Derksen has had a card on the main European Tour and this year, after this victory, will be the first he has retained it. Prior to this event, Els's 46 career victories far outstripped the number of occasions Derksen had made the 36-hole cut in his career.

He began yesterday's round three behind Els and the other 54-hole leaders. The South African eased into sole possession of the lead by driving the green at the second. He birdied there and at the next, and always kept his nose ahead of his nearest pursuers, Alastair Forsyth and David Lynn.

After holing a nasty, quick, downhill 12-footer at the 11th, Els was two in front but Derksen had crept in to a share of second place.

His incredible odyssey began by holing a putt from over 60 feet for an eagle at the 13th. Back at the 12th, a par-four, Els was over the green in two, his seven-iron having flown over 200 yards from the semi-rough, and then he chipped short, chipped again and two-putted for a double bogey six.

From two behind, Derksen was two ahead. He never wavered from then on, though Els got level with a birdie at the 13th and then chipping in at the 15th.

The last, a par-five with water in front of the green, had cost Els bogeys on the previous two days. Derksen laid up and then hit a superb pitch to under five feet. He holed the putt, punched the air and left the green in tears of joy.

Els had a birdie chance at the 17th but the putt was never on line. At the last he made sure of not going in the water with his second but went over the back of the green.

It was a tricky chip, with the green running away to the water on the other side, but the execution was poor. He was left with a 25-footer to tie but the 18th has not been kind to the South African all week. "I didn't hit a very good chip but I was concerned it was going to run away into the water," Els said.

"What can you do?" Els added. "One guy comes out of the pack and beats you. He played so well."

The first prize of £200,000 was more than Derksen's previous career earnings. He had never finished better than 12th. "This is the shock of my life," he said, all smiles. "I have just phoned my parents, who have always supported me. I was crying and they were crying."

Derksen, who had planned to play in Qatar this week but may withdraw, added: "It is nothing to do with safety. I always said if I won I would take the next week off and celebrate at home."

Beating the world No 2 for a maiden victory is certainly worth a week of parties.

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