A double bogey on the closing hole marred an otherwise brilliant round, giving Els an even-par 70 that put him at 1 over par midway through the tournament -- and four off the lead.
'Right now, it's a bit of a mental struggle to talk to you guys with a smile on my face,' Els said. 'I worked so hard all day to get it back to under par. It was really disappointing.'
On a day in which a narrow, rough-laden Oak Hill bared its teeth, Els let two shots get away after an indifferent bunker shot and a finishing three-putt.
It was about the only bad aspect to a day during which Els got into position for a weekend challenge to a major championship he's never won.
'I'm playing really well, man,' Els said. 'I kept it in play, but I just made a bit of a mess at the last hole.'
Els, who opened on No. 10, was 2 under for his day when he hit his tee shot into the rough on the par-4, 452-yard ninth hole. After hitting his next shot into a greenside bunker, Els hit it out of the sand to about 20 feet.
He then compounded his error by three-putting for a 6.
Still, Els was in contention for his fourth major championship, and his second in two years. Els, who won two U.S. Opens, won the British Open last year.
'I have a chance,' Els said, looking ahead to the weekend. 'I am not too bad of a position. I really wanted to get to red numbers by the end of the day, and I almost did that.'
Els got into red numbers earlier with three straight birdies that got him on the leaderboard for the first time this week.
He tried to drive the 323-yard 14th hole, chipped to 18 feet and made the putt, then rolled in a birdie from 30 feet on the next hole. Finding his rhythm, the Big Easy stuffed his approach into two feet on the 16th.
But he wasted a good drive on the toughest hole, No. 17, by three-putting from 40 feet.
The rest of his round was a battle for par.
None was more impressive than No. 1, when Els hooked his drive into the rough, under a tree. Crouching slightly, he checked his backswing to make sure it wouldn't hit a limb. Then, he hammered his wedge over a strand of trees and just cleared a bunker.
Els made nice par saves from just off the green at Nos. 3 and 5, and finally cashed in with a birdie on the eighth to get back to 1 under.
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.