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No roadblocks as Els leads

Ernie Els masters Road Hole; Tiger Woods a stroke back in British Open.

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Through a long, sunny Thursday at the British Open, 156 golfers dared the flaming nostrils of the Road Hole, a quirky par-4 terror that is the toughest challenge in a major championship.

Average score: 4.8.

Sunset was near as Ernie Els, two-time U.S. Open champion, turned the 455-yard monster into his personal toy, seizing a three and holding the opening round lead at 6-under-par 66.

"If your drive isn't excellent at that 17th, there's a big chance for misery," Els said. "I always walk away delighted when making a Road Hole par."

The 6-foot-3 South African overachieved, drawing a 6-iron on his 184-yard approach and stopping closer than anybody, 6 feet from the cup.

Questions in the media tent for the 30-year-old from Johannesburg involved Tiger Woods who accomplished a 15-stroke romp, with Els second, at last month's U.S. Open.

"Not now," said Els, managing a grin. "I just shot 66 at St. Andrews. Let's talk about that." But he would say of Woods, "If he beats me by 15 this time, there should be an inquiry."

Els recalled a 30-hour trip from South Africa to Hawaii to begin this year's PGA Tour. "My wife and I, with little Samantha in my lap, had plenty of time to talk," Els said. "Right there, I focused like never before on doing well in the big ones." He finished second in April to Vijay Singh at the Masters.

Starving to win.

Through his first eight holes, Woods did a convincing impersonation of a British Open mortal with pars. Barely half the field had teed off, as the Grand Slam want-to-be droned along in 41st place.

"Never a worry," the 24-year-old said. "Just the opening inning of a long ballgame. I was confident shots would get crisper, putts would begin to fall and all would be fine."

Kingdom of Fife winds were less frisky than usual. Eventually, the Tiger bombs would land. At the ninth, he holed a 12-foot birdie putt. Woods mashed his drive at the par-4 10th, bouncing it into the green at the 379-yard hole, then two-putting for aconsecutive birdie.

Mediocrity begone.

At the 314-yard 12th, Woods drove to the green on another Old Course par-4 hole. Again, a two-putt birdie. Woods birdied the 14th and 15th, making it five in a seven-hole streak.

When his shift was done, Woods had 67, tied for second with Steve Flesch, a 33-year-old left-hander from Kentucky. One behind at 68, as the Old Course absorbed a beating, were Tom Lehman, Dennis Paulson, Scott Dunlap, Ian Garbutt, Padraig Harrington, Shigeki Maruyama and Sergio Garcia.

Fifty broke par.

"I've never seen a British links course in condition as good as St. Andrews now," Woods said. "I'm hoping the wind picks up, spicing the process."

Greens and fairways got an extra watering in the wee hours, taking away some of the fire. "It's difficult to guess what weather conditions are going to be," Woods said. "If scores remain low, they'll probably start hiding pins. But then, if it's made far tougher, what happens if the wind howls? It could be extremely challenging."

Tiger would like that. It eliminates so many.

"When you're playing better than anyone," Jack Nicklaus said, "your hope is that conditions will be extremely hard. Fast greens. Hard fairways. Wind. That dramatically reduces the number of guys with a real chance to win."

At 60, Nicklaus says this will be his last British Open. He shot 77 and is unlikely to be among the low 70 players and ties who make today's cut.

Singh, playing without glasses after having laser eye surgery, had five birdies for 69. Twenty-five shot in the 60s. Defending champion Paul Lawrie wasn't so fortunate, hobbling in with 78.

Flesch, never a PGA Tour winner, is aflight with his best year, having earned $1,048,750.

"Because of that, I'm not shocked by playing well here," he said. "This being my first British Open, it didn't take long to find that this style of golf is a whole other way of playing. My caddie and I were at times like two blind men trying to figure it out."

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