At 16-under, Els gives PGA record 'treatment'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- Ernie Els has this routine he goes through when he really wants to launch his tee ball. He widens his stance and slows his swing and gives the ball what he likes to call "the treatment."

The treatment. That's what Els is giving the PGA Championship. That's what he's giving the field, which was the strongest in the history of golf when the week began. That's what he's giving Riviera Country Club, and it's a treat just to be able to watch.

Els, 25, continued his mastery of his game and all else that he surveyed yesterday. He overpowered Riviera once again for a round of 66 that gave him a 54-hole total of 16-under-par 197, breaking Nick Faldo's major-championship record of 199 set in the 1990 and '92 British Opens and bettering the PGA Championship record by three strokes. He has a three-stroke lead over Mark O'Meara, who shot 69, and Jeff Maggert, who shot 65 and vaulted right into the picture.

Of course, that picture is dominated by a large, smiling South African man who is handling the par-5s around here like they are par-4s -- and short par-4s at that. O'Meara and Maggert just tied the 54-hole record for the PGA Championship and they are three strokes behind.

O'Meara, who has the misfortune of playing his best golf in a major championship at the same time that Els is playing his, still ++ tried to put a happy face on it.

"Ernie is really playing great," O'Meara said. "I would have liked to have made a couple of those putts, but, hey, [today's] a long day and who knows what's going to happen."

If past performance is any indicator, Els will prevail. He has become an excellent front-runner.

Last year, Els won two tournaments, the Dubai Classic and the Johnnie Walker World Championship, by six strokes. This year, he had a three-stroke lead after 54 holes of the GTE Byron Nelson. He won by three. Last year he led the U.S. Open by three going into the final round. And what happened there?

"I managed to get myself into a playoff," Els said. "This is a major championship. I'm not going to get too cocky."

If he were to get cocky, it would be understandable. Els, who won that U.S. Open playoff, is an overwhelming presence when he has things under control. Toss in a few good breaks, like the ones he got yesterday, and he can take on an aura of invincibility. He is 11-under par on Riviera's three par-5 holes.

He hasn't parred a par-5 yet. Two eagles, seven birdies. He is 4-under at the 503-yard first, 4-under at the 564-yard 11th, 3-under at the 576-yard 17th.

"I must say, I feel like I'm hitting the ball quite solidly," Els said in one of his smirking understatements.

Even when Els didn't hit the ball solidly yesterday, he got a good result. At the first hole, his second shot found the bunker in front of the green. He exploded to five feet and made birdie. At the third hole, he pulled his drive into the trees, hit his approach into the green-side bunker and holed that for birdie.

"That was going to be a hard one to get up and down," he said, "and I managed to hole it. That probably was the shot of the tournament for me."

Maybe, but the turning point of the tournament so far didn't come until the 11th hole. Els and O'Meara went to that hole tied for the lead at 13-under par. Maggert was two holes ahead, having reached 11-under with his birdie at the 11th. Els widened his stance on the tee and gave it the treatment, 308 yards, high and soft, riding a slight breeze.

He blasted his 3-wood just left of the green at 11 and chipped in for eagle.

O'Meara had a 12-footer for birdie that he promptly whacked three feet past off the lip and then missed coming back. Bogey, man. "Obviously, that was a big change of fortunes right there," O'Meara said.

After giving one back with a three-putt bogey at the 12th, Els shifted into his languid version of high gear. He killed his drive at the 17th hole, just missed the green with his 3-wood and chipped on for a five-foot birdie try, which he made. At the 18th, Riviera's signature hole, the place where Sam Snead used to lean on a 4-iron to get home and where some winners of the Los Angeles Open hit woods into the green, Els hit a 9-iron.

Just like that. A 9-iron. From 147 yards. It landed 18 feet left of the hole and stayed there, and Els made the left-to-right putt for birdie to close out the day on a sweet note.

Now he stands on the verge of greatness. John Daly is currently the only player younger than 30 to have two major championship victories. Els would join some very elite company -- Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Daly -- in the multi-major, sub-30 set.

"I really can't see him shooting more than par," O'Meara said. "That tells you what everybody else has to shoot."

Right now there is Els and there is everybody else. There is one more round and if Els can do the same things he has the other three, he will have rekindled the comparisons to the great players of yesteryear and reopened the debate about the identity of the best young player in golf.

"The game plan is to really step on my driver and try to get it into the fairway and reach the par-5s," Els said. "It's worked so far."

F: That's the treatment. If Els delivers it, he will win.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

The leader . . .

Ernie Els ...................66-65-66-197

. . . and selected followers

Mark O'Meara ................64-67-69-200

Jeff Maggert................ 66-69-65-200

Colin Montgomerie ...........68-67-67-202

Steve Elkington .............68-67-68-203

Craig Stadler ...............71-66-66-203

Greg Norman .................66-69-70-205

Michael Bradley .............63-73-73-209

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