Sun, Oct 03, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Els keeps lead as Woods' putter fails

AMERICAN EXPRESS CHAMPIONSHIP While players battled continuously changing weather conditions, the man from South Africa maintained a two-stroke edge

AP , THOMASTOWN, IRELAND

Ernie Els of South Africa tees of on the 8th hole at Mount Juliet Golf course in the American Express World Golf Championship in Thomastown, Ireland, Friday. Tiger Woods is five shots behind Els, who leads the field going into the final rounds.

PHOTO: AP

Playing some of his best golf in the worst conditions, Ernie Els breezed through a wacky day of weather at the American Express Championship and held a two-shot lead on Friday and hope that he still has a lot to play for this year.

Els started with four straight birdies and posted an 8-under 64.

"I didn't know what to expect today," he said. "I wanted to just try and get myself in position and take every shot as they came. I mean, 64 in these conditions ... it's one of the better rounds I've played this year."

Els was at 11-under 133, and right behind him was a familiar foe.

British Open champion Todd Hamilton, who went head-to-head with Els over the final 40 holes at Royal Troon before beating him in a playoff, had one of only two bogey-free rounds at Mount Juliet for a 69 and was at 9-under 135 with Miguel Angel Jimenez (68).

"I've seen everything except snow today," Hamilton said.

Tiger Woods still struggled with a back injury, but he saved his worst grimaces for all the putts he missed.

Just one shot off the lead at one point, Woods took 19 putts over his final nine holes and had to settle for a 70, leaving him five shots behind going into the weekend.

"I just had four holes where I spent a little more time on the green than I should have," Woods said.

Everyone spent way too much time changing clothes.

The weather switched from showers to sunshine, from a warm breeze to cold gusts up to 32kph, sometimes over the span of three holes.

"We were taking off jackets, putting on jackets, had the umbrella out, taking rain pants off, putting them back on," Hamilton said. "It was a nuisance. Plus, we got told we were behind, and that makes you speed up. I told him it was because we had to undress so many times."

It was a perfect day for Els. The Big Easy prefers tropical warmth, which he gets at his beach house in South Africa. But he has a good history in bad weather, such as the 72 he shot in the third round at Muirfield two years ago when he won the British Open.

"I've been playing the European tour 13 years now, so I think I've seen most conditions," Els said. "I just start learning after a while. When it's like this, it's a good opportunity to do something, maybe catch up."

Els did better than that, and quickly. Three shots behind to start the second round, Els had the lead before Hamilton even got to the first tee box. He holed a couple of short putts, nearly made an ace on the par-3 third, then made a 30-footer on the fourth.

He added a couple of more birdies on the back nine, then ended his round with a 10-foot par save.

"I'm leading at the moment, but leading right now doesn't mean much," Els said. "We've got a lot of golf to be played, and I've got a lot of birdies to be made."

Jimenez will join Els in the final pairing today thanks to a dynamic finish. He made a 25-foot birdie on the 16th, a 50-foot eagle on the next hole and finished with a shot equally impressive -- a chip from deep rough on the side of a mound to a tight pin. The ball nearly went in, and the Spaniard tapped in for par.

Jimenez, a four-time winner in Europe this year, nearly won the inaugural American Express Championship at Valderrama in 1999 until making bogey on the last hole and losing to Woods in a playoff.

"Hopefully, I can make it up," he said. "Yes, it should be good."

Els is trying to make up for what feels like a lost year. Even though he has won twice on the PGA Tour, he played well enough to win all four majors and got nothing out of it.

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