Els gets undesired shootout

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Ernie Els was in control and on top of his game when he stood on the 17th tee Saturday, five strokes clear of K.J. Choi with nothing but green grass and the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean on the horizon.

One bad swing -- and a record round by Choi -- was all it took for Els to go from a runaway in the Mercedes Championships to a shootout he didn't want.

''I did just about everything right,'' Els said after his 8-under 65, which tied a 37-year-old record on the PGA Tour and put several others in reach.

The one mistake cost him.

Els leaned on his bag at the 486-yard 17th, wanting to hit driver but opting instead for the 3-wood. He swung at it too hard and hooked it into the hazard, turning away before it finished its flight.

''Probably should have stuck to my guns, but we're all human,'' Els said.

Els and Choi played like they were from another planet.

The South Korean birdied the 18th for a course-record 62, and when Els failed to birdie the par-5 finishing hole, the five-stroke lead was down to two.

''It makes a bit of a change,'' Els said. ''In another way, it makes me focus differently. I don't have to protect. I have to be aggressive.''

The day wasn't a total loss.

Despite the sloppy finish, Els was at 25-under 194 and tied the PGA Tour record in relation to par for 54 holes. Gay Brewer also had a 25 under through three rounds at the 1967 Pensacola Open, a tournament that no longer exists.

Choi made a 10-foot birdie on the 18th to break by one the record previously held by Mike Weir and David Duval. More importantly, it gave him a fighting chance.

''I thought there was a bit of gap between me and Els,'' Choi said. ''I just said, ''Try my best today, try my best tomorrow, and we'll see where that takes me.'''

Els missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the final hole the first time all week he hasn't made at least a birdie on the par 5s.

And it set the stage for what could be quite a duel Sunday at Kapalua.

Three years ago, Els went toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods in the final round, losing on the second hole of the playoff.

Even Woods, who is out for the first five weeks recovering from knee surgery, might not be able to hang with these two, who appear to be in midseason form.

Els and Choi will have a couple of other records within reach Sunday. The tournament record is 26-under 266, set by Duval in 1999. The PGA Tour record in relation to par is 28 under, set two years ago by Mark Calcavecchia in the Phoenix Open.

Better yet, no one else is in sight.

Former U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen had a 66, but was only at 201, seven strokes out of the lead.

Bob Estes (70), Chris Riley (67) and Jerry Kelly (67) were another stroke back.

Choi would have been a long shot to win in his first trip to Kapalua except for Els' mistakes over the final two holes.

The big South African was crushing his driver to places rarely visited on the Plantation Course, giving himself plenty of looks at birdie and making most of his putts.

He started to pull away on the 305-yard 14th hole after hitting his driver left of the green in thick rough, facing a steep bunker and only about 12 feet of green to the flag. Els hit a perfect flop shot that rolled into the cup for an eagle.

It was his fourth eagle of the tournament, after making only six last year.

''I've hit it there three times. I should know that shot by now,'' he said with a grin as he walked to the 15th tee.

Els followed that with a drive that reached the bottom of the hill on the par-5 15th, measuring close to 400 yards and setting up a routine birdie. Another big drive led to a chip that hopped once and stopped 6 inches from the cup to go to 27 under.

Then, it all came undone.

''I wanted to hit driver, but I spoke myself into a 3-wood,'' Els said. ''Just basically played the hole bad. It was a mental error.''

It was one he couldn't afford, not with Choi having his way at Kapalua.

The South Korean, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour last year, played in the group ahead of Els, so the Big Easy was aware of his move. This was no time to take in the spectacular views from Maui, or gaze at the dozen surfers below.

''I just kept going, hole to hole,'' Choi said. ''The best score has a good chance.''

It will be Els' third chance at winning. Along with losing the great duel with Woods in 2000, the following year Els had a four-stroke lead at the turn in the third round before he chopped up the par 5s, lost the lead and never recovered.

Despite the poor finish, Els came away believing it was still his tournament to win.

After all, he tied the 54-hole record on tour. He has played brilliant for 52 holes over three days. And he's still in the lead.

''It will be a pretty good shootout,'' Els said. ''I'm sure he's going to come after me.''

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