Monday, 26 January 2004
When Ernie Els arrived in Perth from a charity shoot out in Bali, the only poser was whether or not the pre-tournament favourite could maintain his magnificent form and claim another success in the Johnnie Walker Classic. How emphatically was that question to be answered!

With two wins on the US PGA Tour, victory in the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne Golf Club a fortnight earlier, and a second place finish in the Caltex Masters, presented by Carlsberg, Singapore 2003, Els’s brilliant golf had enabled him to be a remarkable 71 under par for his 16 tournament rounds in 2003.

By the end of the week on Australia’s west coast, he had moved that particular statistic on to astonishing heights. Having swept the quality field aside in style under a hot sun to record his fourth win in five starts in 2003, he was now the grand total of 100 under par for 20 rounds.

Two weeks earlier Els had squeezed to victory in a nail-biting finish in Melbourne. In Perth he had no such problems. He led from start to finish and was out on his own, breaking two European Tour records in the process and thrilling spectators every bit as much as two other great South Africans, Bobby Locke and Gary Player, had done in years gone by.

Els’s 54 hole 23 under par total of 193 after rounds of 64-65-64 beat, by one stroke, the previous best three round under par score set by Vicente Fernandez in the 1975 Benson and Hedges International Open, and his final 29 under par winning total of 259 was two better than the previous best by Canadian Jerry Anderson at Crans-sur-Sierre in 1984.

The 72 hole total gave the 33 year old South African a unique double, for just a few weeks earlier the winner of the 2002 Open Golf Championship had set a new under par record on the US PGA Tour, shooting a 31 under par total of 261 in the Mercedes Championships on the Plantation Course at Kapalua.

Els was one shot ahead of David Lynn after an opening 64 which was one shot outside the course record established by defending champion Retief Goosen on his way to the title one year earlier. By halfway he was four in front and he was nine clear with a round to go. It was hardly surprising that the report in the local Sunday newspaper read: “When Ernie Els wins today,” and not ‘if’. The Big Easy was so much in control that a second victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic- to follow his first at Hope Island in Queensland in 1997 - was a certainty.

He carded a final round 66 and won by ten shots, a winning margin which bettered by two the domination Goosen had had over the field in 2002. Put simply, the thousands of fans who flocked to Lake Karrinyup Country Club during another brilliantly staged event had been treated to a display by a golfer completely on top of his game both mentally and technically.

Els’s performances when winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge in December and throughout January and February represented one of the greatest in-form runs for years. Yet, incredibly in Perth, there was always the feeling he had another gear to move up to if the challenge had materialised from the chasing pack. He ambled round making 28 birdies and three eagles in four rounds without ever breaking sweat.

The bottom line was he knew he was playing better than anyone else on the week and, perhaps even more importantly, they knew it too. If Tiger Woods overwhelms his US PGA Tour colleagues when he tees up in the States, Els did exactly the same to the best of the Australasian, Asian PGA and European Tour players in this tri-sanctioned venture.

Although Els dominated proceedings, there were other fine performances notably from Craig Spence, the 27 year old former Australian Masters champion who showed a welcome return to form after a lean spell. With his wife caddieing, he fired a record equalling 63 in the third round which included eight birdies in a row, thus becoming only the tenth player to achieve such a feat in European Tour history. He also picked up an Omega watch for low round of the week.

Defending champion Goosen went to the turn in the second round in seven under par 29 but even then Els outdid him, carding that mark on the back nine on each of the first two days. Robert Allenby threatened after a second round 64 but faded and there was no expected challenge from Sergio Garcia who, after having finished third in 2002, missed the cut to the disappointment of many.

Craig Kamps, Stephen Leaney, Jean-Francois Remesy, David Smail, André Stolz, Goosen and Spence were involved in the battle for the minor places. Leaney and Stolz eventually shared second place but quite simply they were merely part of the chorus line in ‘The Ernie Els Show’. At seven under par after just seven holes on day one, the writing was on the wall for all the others.

As Leaney said: “If someone had said at the start of the week that I would shoot 19 under par and lose by ten shots, I would have been pretty upset, but what can you do? I can't play any better than that.”

Renton Laidlaw

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