Azinger storms back with record as Els romps away

PAUL Azinger could not have chosen a more appropriate moment to announce his return to the golfing big time. With Ernie Els extending his lead to seven shots going into the final round of the fourth staging of the US$2.5 million Johnnie Walker World Championship, the tournament was in need of an injection of life. Fittingly, 34-year-old Azinger was the man to provide it. Azinger has now fully recovered from a rare form of cancer that, although not life-threatening, put him out of action for the best part of a year and did threaten his golfing career.

He reappeared on the Tour in August, but until the third round here had struggled to reproduce the form that brought him victory in the 1993 US PGA Championship and made him a stalwart of the past two victorious American Ryder Cup teams. But at the Tryall club on Saturday, Azinger provided conclusive proof that he is back to stay.

' This means a lot to me. It's by far my best round since I returned. It's good for you all to see that I'm back and capable of doing what I was doing before,' said Azinger after setting a course record nine-under-par 62, made up of seven birdies and an eagle three at the 17th. At the start of the day Azinger was tied for 19th place in the 24-man field, 17 shots behind runaway leader Els. By the end of the day he had more than halved the deficit and was joint third. Els, who added an even-par 71 to 64s in the first two rounds, was full of admiration for Azinger. 'It's great for Paul. He's been through so much hardship. It's almost like a miracle for him to come back like this,' said Els.

Azinger, who received a special invitation to the tournament, confessed to being as surprised as he was happy. He said: 'I really didn't expect this. I've run the gamut of emotions this week. The first day I got off to a nice start and finished poorly. The second day after 10 holes I was five over and wondering whether I would quit.' Azinger said that playing alongside Seve Ballesteros helped him to maintain his concentration. He said: 'It seems the toughest thing in coming back has been my level of concentration. It has been difficult for me to re-learn and maintain a level of concentration through 18 holes. 'Playing with Seve was great. It allowed me to bear down more than normal. He is so competitive. We had great conversations on a couple of holes early on. He is an inspiration to me and I was able to maintain the level of concentration that had been missing.' Ballesteros himself shot a 65. Between them, Azinger and Ballesteros had 13 birdies and an eagle and not a single bogey. Azinger also cited a change in putting style for his change in fortunes. Adopting a cross-handed grip which he has been working on with Dave Stockton, Azinger found his range to devastating effect. Another American who was celebrating was Tom Kite who used a five-iron to score a hole-in-one at the 191-yard 13th - the first ace ever recorded in the tournament. Kite ended with a 68 and is on 212.

For South African Els it was a highly satisfactory day, although it did not always look like it would be so. A tentative start saw him drop three shots in the first 11 holes and gave hope to Tom Lehman and Nick Faldo, joint second overnight. After eight holes, Lehman had cut Els' lead from six to three. But while Els came back in two-under 34, Faldo took 37 for a 73 and Lehman took 40 for a 75.

Els had three-shot swings in his favour over Lehman at the 12th and 17th, while Faldo made a double-bogey at the 13th. 'I was a little worried after 11,' said Els, who was relieved that none of his pursuers made a serious move. Nick Price did make a late charge with birdies at 15, 16 and 17 to move into second place on 206, one ahead of Azinger, Faldo, Mark McCumber and Ian Woosnam. It is highly unlikely anyone will catch Els. But Azinger is not even thinking about that. 'My goal this week was to be in a position to be nervous. I have not been in this position since I came back.'