Els, who has a house on the spectacular Gary Player-designed Leopard Creek course at Mpumalanga, made full use of his local knowledge in the joint sanctioned event with the Sunshine Tour, especially on the back nine which he played first, and which he covered in figures of five under par 32.
The birdie barrage dried up on the inward half and although he had chances to put more red figures on the board, the ball refused to drop into the hole. However the 35 year old pronounced himself more than happy with his opening round on The 2005 European Tour International Schedule.
“It is a good start for me and it was a great back nine that I played,” said Els. “I couldn’t get a putt going on the front nine but there aren’t so many birdie opportunities there like there are on the back nine where there are three par fives.
Els highlighted the par five 13th, one of the three par fives he birdied on the back nine, as a turning point in his round after initially fearing his pulled tee shot had found a water hazard.
“I thought it went into the water but when I went to look I saw it was just left of the stream and I had a shot. I played it out to the fairway, hit a wedge onto the green and made a birdie. It was a big swing for me because it could have been a six, seven or anything.”
During the practice rounds the main concern for the players was the heat around the Leopard Creek course which saw temperatures rise to over 110 degrees. However, a cool breeze saw the first round played in pleasant temperatures of 70 degrees, leaving the start time of 6.25am as the only worry for the pre-tournament favourite.
Surprise leader McDonald was mentioned to the tournament organisers for a possible invitation by his fellow countryman Nick Price and the former Open Golf Champion’s recommendation proved to be a good one as the 23 year old stormed to the head of affairs.
Unlike Els he did drop shots in his opening round – at the fifth and 12th holes but more than made up for it with eight birdies elsewhere, including at the sixth and seventh holes, his 15th and 16th having started the day at the tenth, to move him past the World Number Three and into the lead.
McDonald, who went to Charleston College in the United States in 1999 and has spent the past year playing on the Hooters Tour in America, admitted feeling the nerves when seeing Els’s name atop the leaderboard during his round.
“When I was on the 15th hole I saw Ernie was already five under and that is tough with me being young and this being my first major Tour event,” he said.
Four players shared third place after opening 68s, the Qualifying School graduates Neil Cheetham of England and Benoit Teilleria of France, Telleria’s fellow countryman Raphael Eyraud and James Kamte of South Africa.
Courtesy of www.europeantour.com