Els goes tiger hunting

Saturday, July 22, 2006

After the world's No. 1 player jumped to the front with a 65, Ernie Els kept pace.

HOYLAKE, England -- Tiger Woods stood in the middle of the 14th fairway with a dazed look, so far away from the green he couldn't tell where his ball landed.

"It went in?" Woods asked his caddie.

Yes, it did.

With another amazing shot in a career filled with them, Woods seized the lead at the British Open with a 7-under-par 65 Friday and cast aside the notion that his poor performance at Winged Foot was anything more than a rare off week for the world's greatest golfer.

Woods pulled out his 4-iron at No. 14, the flag rippling in the breeze 209 yards away, and ripped a shot for the ages. The low drive came down at the edge of the green and hopped three more times before striking the stick, dropping straight in for eagle.

Walking toward the green, Woods heard the gasps from the gallery but didn't know where his ball ended up. When told it was in the cup, he broke into a wide grin, gave caddie Steve Williams a high-five and shrugged his shoulders, almost as if he was apologizing. Williams jokingly attempted to put the bag on Woods' shoulder as the two made a triumphant walk up the fairway.

"It's a bonus," Woods said. "Trust me, I'm not trying to put the ball in the hole. I'm just trying to put it on the green and get out of there with a 4."

Instead, he wrote down a 2 on the way to 12-under 132.

Ernie Els, a three-time major winner who took the claret jug in 2002, didn't fade away in the afternoon, even with the winds off the Irish Sea kicking up just a bit.

The Big Easy matched Woods with a 65 that was more workmanlike than his rival's -- seven birdies, no bogeys-- and they'll see each other up close on Saturday when they're paired in the final group.

Els was a shot behind Woods at 133.

"Obviously I've got to keep it up," Els said. "I'm playing with the world's No. 1 player on the weekend. It should be fun."

Also in on the fun: a resurgent Chris DiMarco, who also shot 65 to get to three strokes off the lead, and two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen, whose 66 left him another shot back on a nearly perfect day for going low at Royal Liverpool.

Phil Mickelson, on the other hand, wasn't making much of a move. Trying to bounce back from his final-hole collapse at the U.S. Open, Lefty was 1 under for the day with five holes to play and a daunting eight strokes behind Woods.

Everyone is chasing a player who's never been beaten when he has a 36-hole lead in a major. He's 6-0 as a front-runner, a spot he was in most recently a year ago at St. Andrews. He went on to a five-stroke victory and claimed the claret jug for the second time.

Woods, who also rolled in a 50-foot putt at No. 8, said it's too early to claim victory this year.

"I'm not here with the jug," he said. "We've got 36 more holes to go. Unless there's some kind of rainstorm coming and it's canceled after two days, we have a long way to go."

DiMarco, clinging to hopes of making the U.S. Ryder Cup team, had a painful choice to make after his mother, Norma, died two weeks ago from an apparent heart attack. Instead of dropping out of the British Open, he decided this historic links along the Irish Sea would be an ideal place for everyone in his family to do some healing.

So far, golf has been the perfect salve.

"I certainly have a great peace about me this week," DiMarco said. "My mom has always been a huge supporter of mine. She followed me around so many times, drove me around as a junior player everywhere. She would be absolutely (ticked) off if I didn't play."

With his father watching every shot, DiMarco rolled in a pair of 20-foot birdie putts at the first two holes and moved to the top of the leaderboard with an even longer run of birdies, four in a row starting at No. 8.

"I have my dad here with me," he said. "Walking between the ropes is absolutely therapeutic for me. Walking outside the ropes, me playing well, is absolutely therapeutic for him."

The American broke Graeme McDowell's 1-day-old record for the best Open score at Royal Liverpool. Woods and Els matched it before the day was done.

DiMarco hasn't won on the PGA Tour in four years, and his hopes of making the Ryder Cup team plummeted this year after he injured his ribs while skiing and struggled to regain his form.

He's certainly played well for the red, white and blue, earning 2 1/2 points in the Ryder Cup two years ago and clinching the Presidents Cup with a 15-foot putt last fall. A strong performance at the British Open could be a major factor in at least being one of the captain's picks should he not crack the top 10.

"The Ryder Cup is huge," DiMarco said. "Playing for my country is probably the greatest thing I've ever done in golf."

But that's still a couple of months away. For now, he's trying to catch Woods, who denied DiMarco his first major title in a Masters playoff in 2005.

His white shirt soaked with sweat on another warm, sunny day, Woods didn't have to worry about making it to the weekend after missing the cut at the U.S. Open last month -- the first time that's happened at a major since he turned pro.

Woods opened with a 67 at Royal Liverpool and did even better Friday, positioning himself for a run at his 11th major championship.

Going with irons off the tee and taking only what the course will give him, Woods is clearly back in the game after taking an extended break to cope with the death of his father, a layoff that undoubtedly contributed to his poor showing at Winged Foot.

McDowell didn't come close to replicating his six-birdie, no-bogey 66 from Thursday. The little-known golfer from Northern Ireland bogeyed the first hole and slumped to a 73, going from a one-stroke lead to a seven-shot deficit.

"It wasn't the best of days," McDowell said. "Now that I have Mr. Woods gallivanting out in front of me, the pressure could be off."

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