- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland Only the Big Easy survived the Big Nasty.
Ernie Els marched through the elements that turned Muirfield into a minefield yesterday, posting a sterling 72 to take a two-stroke lead into the final round of the 131st British Open.
"It's the most amazing thing I've seen for a very long time at this championship," said Els (5 under), marveling at the lashing rain, high winds and low temperatures that descended on the 7,034-yard, par-71 course just as the first of eight groups at 4-under or better took the tee at 1:10 p.m. "I've seen it calm in the mornings, blow in the afternoons, but I've never seen it like this. It was like night and day."
Colin Montgomerie, who shot a tournament-best 64 on Friday, spiraled to an 84. And Tiger Woods, who began the day at 4-under only two behind the leaders, slogged to a career-worst 81.
"It was blowing so hard out there that it was just difficult to stand the ball is oscillating on greens, the rain is blowing. It was so tough," said Woods, his Grand Slam bid now in ruins. "On the third hole, I ripped a 5-iron that only went 135 yards, and I hit it good."
After a relatively placid morning, complete chaos greeted those with afternoon tee times at Muirfield. The rain came down horizontally. The wind blew at a steady clip of 20 mph, gusting up to 35 mph. And as the temperature plummeted, the wind-chill factor dipped into the 30s.
"It was like the Apocalypse. I was just trying to survive," said Denmark's Soren Hansen, who shot a 73 to move into sole possession of second two strokes behind Els. "It was hammering straight down in our faces. You couldn't hardly hold an umbrella. My caddie and I were talking about if this was the worst weather ever in the British Open."
Though the entire front assaulted the field for the better part of four hours, there was a 90-minute interval that even Open veterans claimed was the most miserable they had ever experienced. Only two players in the last 12 pairings reached the fourth green, a 209-yard, par-3 that was playing more like 290 into the driving wind and rain.
Everybody with an afternoon tee time had a horror story. The average score on the day was 74.6, but the afternoon standard was far worse. Woods estimated he went through 12 to 15 gloves. Monty forgot his rain pants. Thomas Bjorn (2 under) couldn't mark his ball on the fifth green, because the wind kept blowing it back toward his feet. Ian Garbutt (even) considered withdrawing because of the chills.
"I was standing on the fourth tee [at 5 under], and you couldn't believe the conditions," said Els, seeking his first claret jug to go along with two U.S. Open triumphs (1994 and 1997). "At that stage, the only playable holes were the downwind holes, and most of them were on the back nine. I never thought I would get it in at 5 under. I thought at best to have broken 76 or 77 today would have been a hell of a score. It was on out there. I mean you could have shot anything."
Like the rest of the leaders around him, Els slumped back toward par toward the turn, reaching the 11th tee having dropped four shots on the day before the weather began to slacken. But unlike the rest of the shivering, rain-drenched masses, the 32-year-old South African took advantage of the gradually calming late-afternoon conditions. Els birdied Nos.11, 13, 16 and 17, playing the back nine in 32 strokes to forge his lead.
Interestingly, many of the players who will be chasing Els today weren't even close to contention before Mother Nature intervened yesterday. Those players, including 1997 Open champion Justin Leonard, who needed birdies on two of the final three holes Friday just to make the cut, now find themselves in the thick of today's competitive mix. Leonard (2 under) fired a 68 in the morning calm yesterday and then moved up some 40 places in the standings during the afternoon tempest.
"It was kind of fun watching myself go up the leader board, and I didn't have to do anything," said the 30-year-old Texan, who was holed up at the famous Greywalls Hotel watching the proceedings on BBC. "I was just lying there, reading a book and watching TV, while my name was creeping up the board."
Leonard isn't alone. English favorite Justin Rose and Spanish star Sergio Garcia are others lurking in the seven-player pack at 2 under after dodging the afternoon's wretched weather. To their credit, the other four players stacked at 2 under (Bjorn, Scott McCarron, Des Smyth and Shigeki Maruyama) actually held their ground in the maelstrom.
"That's just the luck of the draw," McCarron said. "Those guys who played early got a great break, and some of them took advantage. Maybe they'll get a little taste of what it was like out there tomorrow."
With Woods dispatched, the world's bridesmaids know they have a rare opportunity to claim a major without tangling with his highness. Don't think Els wasn't relishing the thought as he looked forward to today's finale.
"It's more comforting than when he's around, obviously," Els said. "But I can't take it easy. I have to go out and play as hard as I can as I have all week. Others want this championship as bad as I do."


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