HONG KONG (AFP) – Four-time major winner Ernie Els surged to the top of the leaderboard at the $1.3 million Hong Kong Open Friday with a five-under-par 65, marking his 45th birthday in style.
The South African great added to an opening round of 66 to lie nine-under at the halfway stage of the co-sanctioned European/Asian Tour event in the southern Chinese city.
Starting on the 11th, Els blitzed six birdies before stumbling slightly with one bogey and then battling hard to prevent another two dropped shots at the Hong Kong Golf Club.
“I played quite nicely and a 65 was exactly what I needed to do, but the course is there for the taking so we’ll see if I’m leading by the end of the day,” said Els, playing in the event for the first time.
The golf hall of famer made a flying start at the par 70, 6,699-yard course in Fanling – picking up his six shots in only the first 11 holes.
But a lapse of concentration at the short par-4 fifth led to trouble off the tee and a bogey after he tried to go for the green with his drive.
Els, nicknamed “The Big Easy” due to his tall frame and smooth swing, then made two lengthy par-saving putts on his 16th and 17th.
“I had a chance of scoring really low today and I kind of lost my momentum,” he said.
“The shot was on but I didn’t really have to go for it. It was a bit of a mental mistake on my part,” he added of his drive on the fourth.
“But I’m looking forward to the rest of the week and obviously I’m in a good position.”
Els said he would celebrate his birthday but “without alcohol”, after organisers presented him with a cake.
“I’m just going to really enjoy the afternoon, have a piece of that cake and relax,” he said.
The Hong Kong Open is the penultimate event of this season’s European Tour.