JUST when Ernie Els looked like running into trouble, he weaved his magic to spark an impressive round at the South African Open.
Els, who has won this tournament five times, fired a five-under-par 67 over Glendower to end the first round one stroke behind joint leaders Jbe Kruger and Andy “Spaceman” Sullivan, who both teed off in the afternoon.
Kruger produced a flawless 66 while Englishman Sullivan carded a double bogey among six birdies and a chip-in eagle three from 50m on 15.
At the KLM Open last year Sullivan won a trip into space, valued at $100000, for sinking a hole-in-one on the par-three 15th hole.
He is entitled to use the prize, which he is not allowed to sell, anytime, although he admits he’s nervous about it.
“I might take it when I’m 80,” he laughed. “I will have had a good life.”
Level with Els were Richard Sterne and Denmark’s Lasse Jensen, and a further four players were one stroke further back, including Charl Schwartzel.
When Els started out on the 10th tee in the morning, he was focused purely on survival over the opening four holes.
On the 10th he needed a six-footer to save par. Then he pulled his tee shot on the 12th into the hazard, where he had to chip onto the fairway and eventually settle for bogey.
On the par-five 13th, he blocked his drive to the right, into the deadly rough.
“I laid it up [and] from about 135 I hit to eight feet and rolled that in, which kind of calmed me down and gave me a little confidence.
“On the next hole I hit it in the bunker and then played probably the shot of the day. It was lying downhill and I hit a nice bunker shot and it went in the hole.
“That was nice,” Els, who three-putted the par-five 15th for par before sinking a birdie three on 16, said.
“I turned at two under and that was where I wanted to be. I played a really nice back nine. I think I hit almost every green and a few looks at birdies.”
He nailed another three birdies on the inward nine, including on the par-four ninth, where he had to sink a short putt.
“That little putt – nothing is taken for granted. I was happy to make that putt and get in the house,” Els said, adding that his putting was moving in the right direction.
“It’s starting to go. The lines and the feel are starting to feel good. I met my friend Roy Yeats, who I’ve known since the Reading days back in the 1980s [the club in Alberton].
“He’s one of the greatest teachers ever and he’s been riding with me since the pro-am. He’s an old-school teacher, which I like. I might even fly him to the States this week, because he’s an incredible teacher.”
Spaniard Jordi Garcia Pinto was lying seven under par at one stage, but he fell back after shooting three bogeys on the last three holes.
Els, 45, felt the organisers had got soft after succumbing to players’ complaints and cutting the rough, but Sterne described the kikuyu as the toughest he had seen in his career.
“He’s not well,” he said jokingly of Els. “He’s getting old.”
– David Isaacson