DORAL, Fla. – Charl Schwartzel finally has a chance to show off his game on a world stage. The next step is to take on Ernie Els, a familiar face from his native South Africa.
Schwartzel ran off four birdies in the opening six holes to catch up, then stayed in the game with three big par putts on the back nine for a 5-under 67 at Doral and a share of the lead with Els going into the final round of the CA Championship.
Els was in front for most of the sunny, blustery day on the Blue Monster until he started missing birdie opportunities. He had to settle for a 2-under 70 to join the 25-year-old Schwartzel at 12-under 204.
It will be an all-South African final pairing, three weeks after another WGC produced an all-England pairing in the final of the Match Play Championship.
Only this time, there are loads of other possibilities.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who had downplayed his chances most of the week, ran off four birdies on the back nine only to have his streak of 26 holes without a bogey end with a three-putt on the 18th. He still had a 67 and was one shot behind.
Robert Allenby, somehow, remains in the mix.
The Australian missed eight putts from inside 15 feet and was falling out of contention until two late birdies allowed him to salvage a 1-under 71, leaving him only two shots behind.
Bob Hope Classic champion Bill Haas nearly holed his final shot on the 18th for a tap-in birdie and a 70. He was three shots behind.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson failed to make up any ground with a 72, which put him eight shots behind. He suffered a stinger in his left elbow hitting off the firm turf on the 18th hole, and while he said it was tender, did not expect it to be a problem.
Schwartzel is the least accomplished among the top four players, although he has one advantage – the recent experience of winning.
Els has not won on any of the major tours since the Honda Classic two years ago, and last year failed to win anywhere in the world for the first time since his first full year as a pro in 1990. Harrington hasn’t won since his the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.
Schwartzel, who stayed with Els last week after failing to qualify for the Honda Classic, qualified for this elite event by winning consecutive weeks in South Africa to move into the top 50 in the world.
He didn’t win against a strong field. But he won.
“It doesn’t matter what you win,” Schwartzel said. “To win is difficult. You’ve still got to play all 72 holes and make that putt on the last hole. It gives you a lot of confidence to win. And as I sit here, I’m very positive. I feel like I can play with the best. And to me, that’s a step in the right direction.”
It’s a big step for Els, too.
He won on the Blue Monster in 2002, when he took an eight-shot lead into the final round and survived a frenetic rally by Tiger Woods to win by two. Els now has a chance to join Woods as the only multiple winners of this WGC event, having won in Ireland when it was the American Express Championship in 2004.
Els showed so much confidence in his swing that he took his drive over the left bunkers on No. 5, about a 285-yard carry with the wind blowing across and slightly helping, which left him a flip wedge to a few week for birdie. That started a stretch of three birdies in four holes, only Schwartzel stayed with him.
Schwartzel tied him briefly three times on the front nine, but what kept the 25-year-old in the game was a series of pars on the back. He holed an 8-foot par putt on the 11th, and one from about the same distance on the 13th after a dreadful tee shot that was so far to the right that it clipped a tree and tumbled into the rough.
Then came the 14th, when his tee shot hung up in the shaggy collar of a bunker, forcing him to place his left foot on a mound and his right foot in the sand, no shot at reaching the green. He hit wedge to 18 feet and made that for par.
Els started missing short putts, which cost him a birdie on the par-5 12th and a par on the 13th when his 4-foot putt spun 270 degrees around the cup. He also missed from about 3 feet on the 16th, which played downwind and allowed most players to drive around the green.
Els is closing in on legendary status in South Africa, a three-time major champion who has played and won around the world. It can be intimidating for a young South African, although Schwartzel has been around him a long time.
“I’ve played golf with his dad. That’s how far back we go,” Els said earlier in the week, referring to a team event played when Schwartzel was barely walking.
Els has been touting him for years, and Schwartzel is just now starting to show what the hype was all about.