Ernie Els produced another record breaking performance Down Under as he stormed into a seven shot lead at the halfway stage of his defence of the Heineken Classic at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Victoria.
Last year at Lake Karrinyup Country Club in Perth, the South African set a new European Tour scoring record of 29 under par 259 on his way to victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic, and the reigning Volvo Order of Merit champion seems set to threaten that mark after another outstanding golfing masterclass.
After his opening course record 60, Els followed up with a flawless second round 66 for an 18 under par total of 126, the first time in European Tour history that any player has carded 18 under par for the first two rounds of a tournament.
By moving seven shots clear of his nearest challenger, Australian Richard Green, the 34 year old also became only the fourth player in European Tour history to move such a distance ahead at the halfway stage, joining Richard Boxall (1990 Lancia-Martini Italian Open), Jesper Parnevik (1993 Bell’s Scottish Open) and Tiger Woods (2000 WGC – NEC Invitational) in the record books.
All three players above, not surprisingly, went on to win the respective tournaments mentioned and it will take a major upset if, in such imperious form, Els does not follow suit this weekend. As Adam Scott, in joint third place with fellow Australian Peter Fowler, surmised: “I don’t see anyone catching him at the moment.”
Els, aiming for a hat-trick of titles at Royal Melbourne, had warned against expecting a repeat of his opening round 60, but even with slightly more demanding pin positions, the South African remained bogey-free.
Els did not miss a green all day, birdied each of the three par fives and it could have been even better had eagle putts on the second and ninth not missed the cup by inches.
He still closed out the round with three consecutive birdies at the seventh, eighth and ninth, and with the wind picking up his lead proved impenetrable.
“It was a good day's work,” said Els, with a touch of the understatement. “I tried to get yesterday's round out of my mind as soon as possible. It is hard to do but starting on the tenth hole and birdieing my first hole settled me down again.
“I played a very good front nine and felt pretty good about my round. Then I had a nice finish to my back nine, birdieing my last three holes. The only difference was that I probably did not hit it as close to the hole as I did yesterday.
“The flags were a little more difficult today, some of them were really tucked away and almost forced you to play away from them. The course showed its teeth a bit.”
Second placed Richard Green, who finished in the top 15 last year, again showed his liking for the Royal Melbourne layout, adding a 67 to his opening round 66 for an 11 under par total of 133.
The left-handed Australian, who defeated Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam in a play-off to win the 1997 Dubai Desert Classic, made bogeys at the 12th and 15th holes but more than made up for that with seven birdies elsewhere in his round.
Joint third placed Peter Fowler, whose 43rd place finish on last season’s Volvo Order of Merit was his highest placing in a decade, showed he had continued in a similar vein of form in 2004 when he added a 68 to his opening 66 for a ten under par total of 134.
Alongside him was his young compatriot Adam Scott, looking to continue his run of winning at least once every year on The European Tour International Schedule since 2001, who matched Fowler’s rounds of 66-68.
The 23 year old from Adelaide, who was partnering Els, admitted he had drawn confidence from playing alongside the leader. “It is absolutely inspirational,” he said. “I saw it last year at Lake Karrinyup. I said that was the best golf I had ever seen, until yesterday.”
The Antipodean challenge continued with Australia’s Peter O’Malley and New Zealanders Gareth Paddison and Mahal Pearce sharing fifth place on nine under par 135, while one shot further back on 136 saw a group of four players, Michael Campbell, Stephen Gallacher, Scott Gardiner and Ian Poulter.