Originally created 10/03/04

Big Easy poised for big win at World Championship



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.

The last time Bjorn played in Ireland, he walked off the course at the K Club in the middle of the first round when he said "demons" took away his perspective in golf. He returned a few weeks later and has made a slow climb back, turning the corner Saturday with one of his best rounds of the year.

"I just got through the round without a bogey, and that's a very good indication where my golf is," Bjorn said. "I also know that I have a very big day ahead of me tomorrow. There are guys that are there every week. I haven't had a top 10 since February. But my golf is going in the right direction."

The voices Harrington keeps hearing are coming from outside the ropes.

The affable Irishman will have an entire country pulling for him in the final round, not unlike what Mike Weir faced last month in the Canadian Open when he was trying to win his national championship.

This is a little different. Harrington plays at least twice a year in Ireland on the European tour, and the World Golf Championship makes only an occasional stop on the Emerald Isle. Plus, Harrington learned earlier this year how to cope with the expectations of an Irish gallery.

"Everybody wants you to win, and sometimes that translates into expectations," Harrington said. "Since then, I've realized that they just want it, they don't necessarily expect it. It's a lot easier to handle when you know that they just want you win. They won't hang me out to dry if I don't win."

Expectations are even lower considering Harrington has three shots to make up against Els. Besides, he checked the odds at the start of the week and saw that he was 25-1.

"It takes 25 of these events for me to win," he said.

It might take a miracle for the 68-man field to finish on Sunday. Tournament officials moved up the starting times because they anticipate heavy rain and big wind.

While the weather forecast looks bleak, the forecast for Els looks much better.

That wasn't the case a month ago, when he bogeyed the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship to miss the playoff by one shot. At the British Open, he lost in a four-hole playoff to the unheralded Hamilton. At the U.S. Open, Els was in the final pairing and shot 80. And at the Masters, Phil Mickelson beat Els with a birdie on the final hole.

Coming off a two-week break, Els looks eager to get going again.

"If you take your eye off the ball, you might get left behind," Els said. "I'm ready to start climbing again."