ORLANDO, Fla. – Winless for two years, Ernie Els put himself in position Saturday for his second straight victory.
Els made sure the last two holes did not unravel a solid day of work at Bay Hill. He made a 10-foot putt to save par on the 18th hole for a 3-under 69, giving him a one-shot lead over Ben Curtis in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The Big Easy is starting to make golf look that way.
Two weeks after his four-shot victory at Doral that ended the longest drought of his career, Els broke 70 for the third straight round at Bay Hill and was at 10-under 206.
“There’s a lot of work left,” said Els, who last won at Bay Hill in 1998 when he dominated Tiger Woods and Davis Love III in the final group of a 36-hole Sunday.
Curtis looked just as good. He just didn’t finish.
The former British Open champion had a two-shot lead until he chopped up the par-5 16th hole from 60 yards short of the green. He bladed a wedge some 70 feet long and three-putted for bogey on the easiest hole at Bay Hill. Then, he went long on the par-3 17th and chipped off the green for another bogey.
Curtis had to make a 6-foot par putt on the 18th to keep it together with a 70, leaving him one shot behind.
“That last putt on 18 was big,” Curtis said. “You always want momentum going forward.”
They will be in the final group Saturday with Chris Couch, who was headed for a double bogey until three big bounces. His approach to the 18th ricocheted along the rocks framing the green, and the third bounce sent the ball onto the green. Two putts later, Couch had a par and a 69 and was at 7-under 209.
The final round will be threesomes and start early to avoid thunderstorms in the forecast for Sunday afternoon.
Phil Mickelson was nowhere near the lead. Right when he was starting to build momentum with his putter, Mickelson made only two putts longer than 5 feet and staggered to a 75, leaving him seven shots out of the lead.
“I had a rough round today in that the ball just didn’t seem to want to go in the hole,” Mickelson said.
The best round – and the best move – belonged to Jim Furyk, coming off a victory last week at Innisbrook. He made the cut on the number, then shot a 66 in the morning when the greens were still relatively soft. He started the day in a tie for 59th. When the third round ended, Furyk was in a tie for sixth, five shots behind.
“I think it was pretty calm and smooth sailing early,” Furyk said. “But once I got it to 5 or 6 under, things tightened up a little bit more and I got a little more serious.”
Edoardo Molinari, who played with Mickelson, shot a 70 and was at 6-under 210 along with Kevin Na.
Davis Love III started the third round in a four-way tie for the lead, needing a victory at Bay Hill to get into the Masters. He made bogey on the first two holes, hit into the water on the 13th and bogeyed the final hole for a 74, leaving him an outside chance from five shots off the lead.
Els struggled to find a rhythm early in his rounds the first two days. That wasn’t the case Saturday. He rarely put any stress on his game, picking up a few birdies early, making birdies on the par 5s on the back nine and dropping only one shot along the way.
Then came the finish.
He managed to hit the green on the 17th, a tough tee shot given the wind off the right, then laid too far back off the tee on No. 18, leaving him 210 yards with water down the right side. Els went left into a bunker, and saved his par.
“It was a bit of a grind, but that was the nature of the course,” he said.
Curtis knew what not to do over the closing holes, but perhaps he thought too much.
Standing over a delicate sand wedge in front of the 16th, the last thing he thought to himself was, “Don’t chunk it.” He didn’t, sending it to the back of the green for a three-putt from 70 feet. And on the 17th, he reminded himself not to miss it to the right, and wound up pulling it to the left, well beyond the green.
Still, he couldn’t complain with his position – one shot behind Els, in contention for the first time this year.
“I can shoot even par, 1 over and win the tournament. Or I can shoot 3 under, 4 under and lose,” Curtis said. “It doesn’t matter what he does or anybody else does. I’ve got to play my game and be smart, and take advantage of some opportunities if they come.”