By Dave Shedloski
Ernie Els said he hopes to play “major championship-type golf” today when he takes a one-stroke lead into the final round of the 32nd Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
With the roll he’s on, the Big Easy seems capable of pulling it off. With the fellows in pursuit, he might need it, too.
Seeking to win back-to-back starts for the first time since 2003, Els continued his recent resurgence with a solid 3-under-par 69 at the breezy Bay Hill Club & Lodge and leads former British Open champion Ben Curtis by a shot at 10-under 206. It’s the 17th time the big South African has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and it’s the fifth time in his last seven rounds that he been at the top.
Curtis, an Ohio native who has a home in Orlando, putted brilliantly in a round of 70 for 207. Rounding out the final threesome will be another local player, Chris Couch, who shot 69-209. Italy’s Edoardo Molinari, a former U.S. Amateur champion, and American Kevin Na were next at 210, while the group at 211 featured former U.S. Open champions Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen.
Furyk shot the low round of the day and tied the low round of the tournament with an early 6-under 66.
“I think it's great for the tournament,” Els, who won here at Bay Hill in 1998, said of the strong leaderboard. “It's such a quality golf course; you've got to play well. Those players that you mentioned are obviously great players. You've got to beat a very good field to win here.
“I'm just trying to do my thing,” added Els, the No. 6 player in the world, who saved par at 18 with a 10-footer to preserve his slim advantage. “I’m trying to play as good as I can and stick with my game plan. Hopefully it's good enough.”
If Els, 39, wins, he’ll be only the fifth player to win two events on the Florida Swing in the same season, joining Tiger Woods, Tom Kite, Ray Floyd and Steve Elkington. He has successfully protected a lead 11 times, including two weeks ago when he won the CA Championship.
While Els ended a two-year winless drought recently, both Curtis and Couch seek their first victories since 2006.
Curtis, 32, led by two strokes through 15 holes Saturday as he scrambled impressively and took advantage of his birdie chances. He ran his streak of holes without a bogey to 31 until a three-putt from 66 feet at the par-5 16th – ranked the easiest on the golf course. He then bogeyed 17 to fall one behind. Like Els, he ended strong, however, with a 6-foott par save 18.
He knows the Big Easy will be hard to beat, but he’s proven over the years to be at his best on tough tracks.
“I like to think around the golf course, and, you know, especially around the greens and hitting different shots,” said Curtis, who has needed just 28 putts in each round. “That's what you've got to do on hard courses. You've got to be smart and you can't be over aggressive. But take advantage of it when you can. And then, you know, I like fast greens, so the faster the better for me.”
Couch, who has played just 16 events since 2007 because of shoulder problems, birdied four of his first six holes as he ended the day where he began – three back. Only this time, he’s alone in third. His round concluded with a fortunate par after his approach to 18 hit the rocks in front of the green but then bounded onto the putting surface, 30 feet from the hole.
“I’ve never considered myself a very lucky person on the golf course, but that was a great break,” said Couch, who lives in nearby Winter Garden, Fla. “I've been hurt for two years and sitting on the couch and matching my last name. But I'm just blessed to be out here every day that I'm out here.”