Els takes lead by two strokes

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

THOMASTOWN, Ireland -- Ernie Els is finding a quick cure for his season of major disappointment.

Instead of sulking over his four close calls in the majors, Els put himself on the verge of his first World Golf Championship title Saturday by ignoring early charges behind him and posting a tidy round of 4-under 68, giving him a two-shot lead over Thomas Bjorn in the American Express Championship.

''I think what happened in August and July and June and April ...,'' Els said, smiling as he paused after each month of each major. ''It's past history now. I can't do anything about it. I'm over that, and I'm ready to take it on again.''

He has looked like a major force in the blustery conditions at Mount Juliet, where Els has made only two bogeys in three rounds to reach 15-under 201 and his first 54-hole lead since he won the Memorial in May.

Els started slowly, wanting to ease himself into the round without any mistakes. But it wasn't long before Bjorn, Padraig Harrington and British Open champion Todd Hamilton started closing in.

Bjorn was 4 under for his first five holes and shot 66. Harrington birdied six of his first 10 holes and shot 66, leaving him at 204. Hamilton made a steady pursuit with a 69, extending his bogey-free streak to 36 holes.

''I just needed to concentrate on my game, which I did,'' Els said. ''I worked hard to get to where I am. I've got a two-shot lead, and it's good to be in that position again.''

The big test comes Sunday, when the most global player in golf will have to hold off an international list of challengers. Hamilton, who also was at 12-under 204, was the only American among the top seven players.

Tiger Woods will need his biggest comeback to win the American Express for a third straight year. He didn't make a birdie until the 10th hole and shot 70, leaving him seven shots behind.

''I'm going to need some help tomorrow,'' Woods said. ''I understand the weather is going to be terrible, so hopefully I can play a great round. (Seven shots) is a long way back, especially when Ernie is playing the way he is.''

David Howell of England, who hit the shot that swung momentum in Europe's favor at the Ryder Cup, had a 66 and also was at 204, giving him a chance for his first victory this year.

U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (68) was another shot back, followed by Sergio Garcia (67).

Mount Juliet doesn't need Woods to spice up this final round.

All three guys in the last group -- Sunday will have threesomes because of a nasty forecast -- bring some interesting baggage to this World Golf Championship. Els often talks about the ''little man'' in his head, so he and Bjorn might have plenty to talk about Sunday.

Southern Farm Bureau Classic

MADISON, Miss. -- U.S. Ryder Cup player Fred Funk surged to the top of the leaderboard in the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, shooting an 8-under 64 to take a one-stroke lead over Steve Pate and Chris Couch. The 48-year-old Funk, who won the 1998 tournament for the last of his five PGA Tour titles, had an eagle, seven birdies and a bogey on the Annandale Golf Club course to finish 54 holes at 16-under 200. Couch shot a 68, and Pate had a 69.

Constellation Energy Classic

HUNT VALLEY, Md. -- Wayne Levi shot a 4-under 68 to take a two-stroke lead into the final round of the Constellation Energy Classic.

Levi, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour seeking his second Champions Tour victory, had a 12-under 132 total. Jose Maria Canizares and Graham Marsh were tied for second after 66s, and Gil Morgan and Bob Gilder were another stroke back after 67s.

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