Ernie Els has a Price on his head at Loch Lomond – or more accurately a pair of them on his tail – when he ventures out for the weekend with a four stroke lead in The Barclays Scottish Open after backing up his opening 64 with an impressive 67.
The South African’s 11 under par total of 131 gives him a handy cushion over Welshman Phillip Price, last week’s Smurfit European Open champion, and his namesake, Terry, from Australia. Both men shot three under par rounds of 68 to finish a wet and windswept day on 135.
Els, a proven front runner, admitted he was close to playing his best golf, in stark contrast to 12 months ago when he could hardly hit his hat, barely made the cut then went on to reach the pinnacle of his career by landing the Open Golf Championship the following week.
However there is no disputing the class of the ‘Big Easy’, who won twice on the US PGA Tour to launch 2003 and followed that up with victories in the Heineken Classic and the Johnnie Walker Classic on The European Tour International Schedule.
“I’ve put myself in a pretty nice position at the moment. Two good days, considering the weather conditions but there are still two days to go. I’ve been in this position quite a few times before so I know what I have to do. I’ve got to keep going and try to broaden my lead.”
Els won the title three years ago but was unable to prevent Tiger Woods walking away with the Claret Jug at St Andrews. However he doesn’t feel that the demands of being at the sharp end of the tournament will perturb him over the next 36 holes.
“I’ve been playing close to my best and that’s a good sign. This is an independent tournament on its own. It’s the Scottish Open and I will play as hard as I can over the weekend. Is it going to take something out of me? I don’t particularly care right now.
“At the start of the year I did all these miles and won tournaments around the world . If that didn’t take it all out of me I don’t think this will so I don’t want to worry about that.”
Els made one birdie all day while Phillip Price made only two and his 68 gets him into the final group with the World Number Two in the third round. It was, he said, a “struggle” on the front nine but he cooked up a tasty morsel for desserts – an inward nine which contained three birdies over the closing five holes, the highlight being a tee shot to five feet at the 17th.
Asked to explain why is playing so well, Price hazarded a guess that his putting was the key. He said: “I played quite well for most of the year and putted quite averagely. The way I am putting now has made a big difference because it means I am getting a bit of momentum going.”
Now Price has an opportunity to win back-to-back title and move closer to Els at the top of the Volvo Order of Merit. But first, he has to overcome the player who has led that particular race for much of the season. He added: “I think winning depends on Ernie. If he starts playing fantastic golf then I think we have all got our work cut out if he doesn’t and I turn up my game a little bit, then who knows?”
The other Price – Terry – also has an opportunity to catch Els, although he did concede that the field appeared to be “just trying to hang onto his coat tails” at the moment. Victory for the 42 year old Australian would be especially poignant, as he has only just resumed playing after the death of his father.
“I have had a disrupted few weeks with my father passing away and I haven’t had much golf under my best. I am now trying to regain a bit of the momentum again and I’m in a good position going into the weekend. It’s not really a surprise. I’ve been playing well tee to green but my putting is much better since doing a little bit of work with Harold Swash.”
Lying in fourth place is another South African, Tim Clark, who has already seen Els’s awesome power at close quarters when the pair played a quiet practice round together on Tuesday. Clark, the 2002 South African Airways Open champion, compiled a solid 68 for a six under par total of 136.
Like the remainder of the chasing pack, he knows Els is the man to beat over the weekend. He commented: “I played with him in practice and he is just hitting it so well. Long and straight and his irons are on the flag on every hole. But it is a course where if you need to play well you can come out and shoot a 64 or 65.”
Welshman Bradley Dredge shot a 68 for fifth place on 137, one in front of two players who also fired a 68, Australian Peter Lonard and England’s Ian Poulter, and South African Martin Maritz (71).
Past champion Colin Montgomerie made the cut on one under par after a 70, while two other past winners, Thomas Björn of Denmark and England’s Lee Westwood, will also play two more rounds on level par and one over par respectively. It was also a tight squeeze for the defending champion, Eduardo Romero. The Argentinian eagled the 14th on his way to a round of 73, just surviving the axe along with 78 others on 147, three over.