Friday, 19 March 2010
Two South Africans – one an established world star and the other an aspiring player with no international pedigree to speak of – moved into a share of the first round lead in the fog-delayed Dunhill Links Championship at St.Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.

Ernie Els, a two-time US Open Champion, fired a seven under par 65 over the fearsome links at Carnoustie, scene of Paul Lawrie’s victory two years ago, while Omar Sandys reduced the Old Course to 65 blows – also seven under par – to match his countryman.

In the 1999 Open, the best Els could muster was a level par 72. This time, in benign conditions following the early morning fog which caused play to be suspended on all three course, the “Big Easy” carved out a typically effortless round with a familiar amateur partner – his dad, Neels.

Out in 35 with a birdie at the seventh, Els then strung together a breathtaking sequence of sub-par golf, picking up shots at six successive holes from the 10th to accelerate into the lead.

Meanwhile at St.Andrews, 24 year old Sandys from Welkom in South Africa, found a warm welcome on the East coast of Fife. The man who came to the UK earlier this year thanks to the generous patronage of Darren Clarke and the ISM stable could not have enjoyed a more exciting start to his week in this Pro-Am format.

After beginning birdie-bogey-birdie, the slender South African settled into his rhythm and picked up birdies at the fifth, sixth and ninth for an outward 32. He then birdied the tenth, 13th and 14th to move to eight under par and the outright lead before the notorious Road Hole, the 17th, tripped him up with a bogey for 33 home and a 65.

Ricardo Gonzalez of Argentina, the recent winner of the Omega European Masters, and England’s Jonathan Lomas- now a Scottish resident – shared third place with 67s at St.Andrews while former Walker Cup hero Nick Dougherty was one of a clutch of players on four under par, 68, over the Old Course.

Meanwhile Els missed the Carnoustie course record by just a single stroke - five hours after fearing that he would fail to break 80. After waiting two hours for fog to clear and then setting off in heavy rain and strong winds, Els wondered what on earth was in store when he saw Darren Clarke miss the first fairway by 100 yards and then Hollywood star Michael Douglas, partnering Clarke, top his opening drive out of bounds just 20 yards in front of him.

"At first I just wanted to stay alive," said Els. "It was crazy the way it was blowing and raining and the fog. It was almost ridiculous."

All three courses are being used for the event, but the fog delays at the start of the day and another one at Kingsbarns at lunchtime meant that the first round could not be completed there before nightfall.

Officials are hoping to make up lost time tomorrow, but more delays will cause real problems with the 312-strong field - 156 professionals and 156 amateurs - due to play all three courses by Saturday evening and then the leading 60 pros and 20 teams qualifying for the final round at St Andrews on Sunday.

The race for the European Order of Merit could well be decided this weekend with so much money on offer and Retief Goosen, another South African of course, took another step towards that.

The US Open champion, already £460,000 ahead of Clarke, had a three-under-par 69 at Carnoustie, three better than the Ulsterman, who recovered from his nightmare start only to bogey the 16th and 17th.

Meanwhile, Jean Van de Velde's return to Carnoustie brought another adventure on the 18th, but this time a par four instead of the triple bogey seven which cost him the 1999 Open title. Van de Velde again fired his drive wildly right, while his second this time finished only eight feet from the out of bounds left of the green.

At Kingsbarns, where only eight of the 26 groups were able to finish. They will resume at 8am.

In the team event former US PGA champion Steve Elkington and country and western singer Clay Walker led on 13 under, but only after tournament organisers failed to inform Walker that they were cutting his handicap from 11 to seven.

Ian Banner, of the championship committee, said the decision was taken after Walker had played to level par at St Andrews in practice. But the reduction will only now apply to the last three rounds.

Boris Becker, partnering Swede Joakim Haeggman, is lying fourth and Hugh Grant, paired with Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance, joint eighth. Samuel L Jackson and Westwood are six under, although Westwood managed only a one over 73, while Douglas and Clarke are three under, Douglas contributing three net birdies after his inauspicious opening..

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