But it sure felt like a lifetime of work to keep it that way.
In a blustery round in which six players had at least a share of the lead, Choi overcame a few hiccups on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook for a 1-under 70 that left him one shot clear of Els (70), Brian Gay (70) and resurgent Paul Goydos (69), who was No. 160 on the money list and now has a chance to avoid Q-school.
Choi never made more than three pars in a row, and that was on the back nine when he was trying to hang on. He was at 9-under 204 and will try to win this tournament for the second time in five years.
'It was really tough, up and down,' Choi said.
It was that way for everyone.
Els is in good shape to collect his first victory of the year, but it sure didn't seem that way when he started losing ground. He recovered with birdies on the par 5s on the back nine. Gay was three shots behind until birdies on two of the tougher holes at Innisbrook, Nos. 16 and 17, and a good save from below the slope on the 18th green to get into the final group.
Gay can't get into the TOUR Championship, so all he cares about his getting his first PGA TOUR victory.
The biggest surprise was the tour's hottest player, Troy Matteson. He started the day eight shots behind, was 5 under through his first five holes and wound up with a 64, leaving himself only two shots behind going into the final round.
The disappointment belonged to Jonathan Byrd, who had a one-shot lead at the turn until losing three shots on two holes and needing to make a 12-foot par putt to limit the damage. Byrd wound up with a 73 and was at 208, along Disney winner Joe Durant (67) and Jason Bohn (68), who is making a late bid to get into the Masters.
This is the final full-event of the year, with players trying to finish in the top 30 on the money list to get into the TOUR Championship, the top 40 for the Masters, or the top 125 to get their card for the 2007 FedExCup competition that starts next year.
Goydos had no expectations coming into the week. He's 160th on the money list and hasn't won in 10 years. Now, he is the only player to post three straight rounds in the 60s and needs to finish at least fourth alone to secure his card for next year. Better yet would be a victory, which suddenly seems plausible.
'All 350 events I've played, I've pretty much had the same goal,' Goydos said. 'It just hasn't worked out.'
Byrd took the outright lead with a two-shot swing on the par-3 eighth hole. Choi hit his chip from the rough too firm, about 4 feet by the hole, and Byrd made a 10-foot birdie putt to reach 9 under. And despite coming up short of the green on No. 12 to take bogey, he kept a share of the lead and appeared to be in control.
But it all came undone on the par-3 13th.
His tee shot nearly went into the water, instead burying in the mangled Bermuda rough. He only moved his first shot about 5 feet, and even his next chip didn't reach the green. Byrd had to hole a 5-foot putt to escape with double bogey.
It was that four-hole stretch that starts the back nine that turned the race upside down.
Els had to scramble for bogey on the ninth after driving into rough so deep that a volunteer had to point his finger inches over the grass to show him the ball. He went left again on the 10th for a bogey and suddenly was three shots behind.
Three holes later, he was tied for the lead, simply by making birdie on the par-5 11th and two pars. Choi also bounced up and down, making birdie on the 12th, giving it back on the 13th, then recovering with another birdie.
Through it all, Matteson knew at the very worst he would be able to sleep in on Sunday as one of the last players to tee off, not sure if he would be atop the leaderboard and somewhat surprised that he was even close to the top.
'It's a little odd, just with this golf course,' Matteson said. 'It's just very hard to get more than two, three, four shots at a time. To shoot a round like that, and the conditions the way they are, it's got to be one of my best rounds of the year.'
It was an amazing start, no doubt.
He birdied his first two holes, chipping in on No. 2, then hit 6-iron into 8 feet for birdie on the par-3 fourth. With the wind at his back, Matteson reached the 599-yard fifth hole, the ball rolling between bunkers and stopping 10 feet away for eagle. He was steady after that until picking up a few birdies on the back nine, the ending with a bit of a fluke.
'Out of the bunker, under the tree,' he said. 'I just stole one from the field there.'
He barely got it on the green, then holed a 30-foot birdie putt for the best round of the day by three shots, and a chance to pick up his second victory during his incredible fall finish.
Just more than a month ago, Matteson was thinking he might have to go through two stages of Q-school. Then he went on his tear with four straight top 10s, including a win at Las Vegas and a runner-up finish at Disney.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.