Ernie Els made light of some atrocious weather by shooting a sensational eight under par 64 at Mount Juliet Conrad, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland to open up a two stroke lead at the halfway stage of the World Golf Championships – American Express Championship.
The South African lies on 11 under par 133 and goes into the weekend two ahead of American Todd Hamilton, the man he lost to in a play-off for the Open Championship at Royal Troon in July, and Spanish Ryder Cup player Miguel Angel Jiménez.
Having come so close to winning four Major Championships this year – he lost out in the Masters Tournament by a stroke, was in the final group in the US Open, missed out on the Open title in a play-off and came up one short of the play-off for the US PGA – Els is determined to finish the year on a high and put himself right in contention for a first victory since May.
Heavy showers in the morning made conditions testing to say the least but Els got off to the perfect start with four successive birdies and he was off and running. With a further five birdies with just the one dropped shot, Els was clear of the field.
“I made a lot of good putts today,” said Els, the current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit. “I think the ones I missed yesterday I made today and it made a huge difference.
“64, in these conditions, is one of the better rounds I’ve played this year. I haven’t shot a low score for quite a while, so this was nice.”
After a two week break, Els has returned to action refreshed and raring to go and is now on course for his first WGC victory.
“Everybody needs a rest and I needed my rest but I feel like I want to dedicate myself again to the game.”
Reflecting on his near-misses in the Majors, Els added: “For a while there myself and you guys (the media) were putting a negative spin on the whole thing. If I look at it from a positive way, I came so close to winning four Majors this year and I’ve never been in that position before. I definitely did do something right. I’ve got to feel encouraged about what happened.”
Jiménez, Europe’s most prolific winner of 2004 with four wins this season, is once again in the running despite struggling with a heavy cold, reaching nine under par 135 with a birdie on the 16th and then holing a 50 metre putt for eagle on the 17th to conclude a round of 68.
“I am struggling with a cold and feel on the limits of my energy,” said Jiménez, who lost out to Tiger Woods in a play-off in the first WGC – American Express Championship at Valderrama in 1999. “I go to the golf course and try and play as smooth as I can, not push myself to do anything. Hopefully I can go one better than 1999. I shot the same score as the winner then.”
Hamilton remains on course to rekindle his rivalry with Woods after following his opening 66 with a 69 to join his playing partner Jiménez on nine under par. Clearly relishing the return to European shores, the Open Champion continues to enjoy his visit to Ireland.
The previous Open Championship winner at Royal Troon, Justin Leonard is also in the frame on eight under par 136 after a second successive 68 while three more European Tour Members are gathering a further shot back – Retief Goosen, the US Open Champion, Lee Westwood and Thomas Bjorn – along with American Steve Flesch.