Friday, June 4, 2004

Els solid, par 5's aside

Edged out by Woods in 2000, South African starts strong

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ernie Els is tied with Ben Curtis for the Memorial lead in Dublin with a four-under 68.
The Associated Press

DUBLIN, Ohio - Of all the great players in the Memorial, the one many felt was the most primed to win is the one who shot the low first-round score Thursday: South African Ernie Els, with a four-under par 68.

That tied him for low first round with Ben Curtis, the Columbus native and Kent State graduate who won the British Open last year.

There was an eight-way tie at 69 that included Fred Couples, Lee Janzen and Paul Azinger.

If not for three-time Memorial winner Tiger Woods, who shot even-par 72 Thursday, Els would have won here by now.

"I've had a couple of good tournaments (here), but a couple of times when I did play well, Tiger (Woods was) too good," Els said. "I finished second here three or four years ago, shot 65 in the final round and still lost by, I think, five shots."

That was 2000, the second in Woods' hat trick here, when Woods had a second-round 63 and third-round 65 to end early any possibility of suspense.

Els said he "loves" the par 5's, but he's going to have to play them better than he did Thursday, when he eagled the seventh hole and birdied the 11th, but bogeyed the 15th and parred the fifth.

That's only two-under on the par 5's, which is a good par-5 average for Woods - after nine holes. In 2001, Woods eagled both par 5's on the back nine in the first round. For the tournament, he was 14-under par on the par 5's, compared to the rest of the field being an average of 2-under on the par 5's.

The 15th hole is typical of the problems Els has to avoid if he is going to break through here. He said the 15th was "the easiest hole on the course" Thursday, but somehow he took a 6 there. He hit his drive a little bit right, and then tried to "cut" a 7-iron out of the rough, but instead the ball came out straight left and he bogeyed.

"The wind was playing around a little bit with me," Els said. "I don't know if the other guys got confused, but I felt it was quite difficult with that breeze moving around."

That's the same holeCouples eagled with about a 50-foot putt that he started about 20 feet to the right of the hole.

"I find it pretty comical to make a putt that long," Couples said, grinning. "I also made a 60-footer on No. 2 (for a birdie 3). You don't expect to make those, but I also had a lot of eight, 10, 12-footers that I didn't make."

Woods also had a good 15th hole, ripping a 3-iron 230 yards off the left embankment to within 25 feet and was a foot short, good for a tap-in birdie.

Not many people know what he thought of it. He didn't speak with the press after his round.

"Do I have to?" he asked a PGA Tour official.

Told that he didn't have to, he signed a few autographs for fans at a brisk walk and was gone.

Vijay Singh also didn't talk after his 1-over 73.

No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively, and they had nothing to say.

There was a lot of wind Thursday thanks in part to the many trees that tournament founder and course architect Jack Nicklaus had removed so the greens could be made faster - which they were, despite rain Tuesday and Wednesday.

"It's a better look ... a nice, clean look and definitely better for the greens," Els said. "The greens are almost as quick as Augusta now, and they've (still) got some moisture in them. At the moment they're perfect, but I'm sure they're going to get quicker. That's the way Jack likes them."

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