Ernie Els began the defence of his European Tour Order of Merit title in considerable style in his native South Africa when a flawless five under par 67 gave the World Number Three second place after the first round of the dunhill championship, one shot adrift of the unheralded leader, Zimbabwean Bruce McDonald.
Els, who has a house on the spectacular Gary Player-designed Leopard Creek course at Mpumalanga, made full use of his local knowledge in the joint sanctioned event with the Sunshine Tour, especially on the back nine which he played first, and which he covered in figures of five under par 32.
The birdie barrage dried up on the inward half and although he had chances to put more red figures on the board, the ball refused to drop into the hole. However the 35 year old pronounced himself more than happy with his opening round on The 2005 European Tour International Schedule.
“It is a good start for me and it was a great back nine that I played,” said Els. “I couldn’t get a putt going on the front nine but there aren’t so many birdie opportunities there like there are on the back nine where there are three par fives.
“I missed a short one on the second hole which I suppose I should have made but other than that I didn’t do too much wrong and played sensibly away from all the trouble. It was quite tricky with the wind getting up too so I am happy to be in with a 67.”
Els highlighted the par five 13th, one of the three par fives he birdied on the back nine, as a turning point in his round after initially fearing his pulled tee shot had found a water hazard.
“I thought it went into the water but when I went to look I saw it was just left of the stream and I had a shot. I played it out to the fairway, hit a wedge onto the green and made a birdie. It was a big swing for me because it could have been a six, seven or anything.”
During the practice rounds the main concern for the players was the heat around the Leopard Creek course which saw temperatures rise to over 110 degrees. However, a cool breeze saw the first round played in pleasant temperatures of 70 degrees, leaving the start time of 6.25am as the only worry for the pre-tournament favourite.
“I don't think I've ever had a tee-off time before seven in my career,” said Els. “But it was all right once I got going and the upside is that it is nice to be done before noon.”
Surprise leader McDonald was mentioned to the tournament organisers for a possible invitation by his fellow countryman Nick Price and the former Open Golf Champion’s recommendation proved to be a good one as the 23 year old stormed to the head of affairs.
Unlike Els he did drop shots in his opening round – at the fifth and 12th holes but more than made up for it with eight birdies elsewhere, including at the sixth and seventh holes, his 15th and 16th having started the day at the tenth, to move him past the World Number Three and into the lead.
McDonald, who went to Charleston College in the United States in 1999 and has spent the past year playing on the Hooters Tour in America, admitted feeling the nerves when seeing Els’s name atop the leaderboard during his round.
“When I was on the 15th hole I saw Ernie was already five under and that is tough with me being young and this being my first major Tour event,” he said.
“You just have to try and think of him as another guy. I know he’s Number Three in the world and how good he is it’s unbelievable, but you just have to think about your own game and luckily I managed to find a few birdies.”
Four players shared third place after opening 68s, the Qualifying School graduates Neil Cheetham of England and Benoit Teilleria of France, Telleria’s fellow countryman Raphael Eyraud and James Kamte of South Africa.