Thanks to a determined performance by Ernie Els, Tiger Woods's bid to win his fifth straight PGA Tour event became a lot more difficult.
Els, who only two days ago said he wasn't in the same league as the No. 1 player in the world, proved he was up to the challenge today. His 6-under 67 erased a four-stroke deficit and gave him a share of the lead with Woods in the Mercedes Championship.
"I'm just trying to stay tough and play my game," Els said. "If I'm on my game, he's going to have a tough time beating me. Today was important. This week is important. This is a good start for me."
It's a great start for the PGA Tour. One tournament into the 2000 season, the final round could turn into another showdown between Woods and Els, with defending champion David Duval four strokes behind.
"That's what you enjoy--get out there and battle against the best players," Woods said. "Win or lose, it's going to be a lot of fun just to go out there and try to come out on top."
Els needed some help to get back in the game, and Woods delivered. Two poor chips led to bogeys, and he battled his swing throughout a cloudy, blustery day off the coast of Maui. But Woods managed to hang in there after his second bogey dropped him one stroke behind. He made a 30-foot eagle putt on the 18th for a 2-under 71.
Els and Woods were at 11-under 208 and will go head-to-head one more time on Sunday.
"I wasn't playing that well," Woods said. "To end on three good, solid shots definitely leaves a good taste in my mouth."
At stake for Woods today is a chance to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win five straight tournaments. History is on his side. Woods has won his last 10 PGA Tour events--and last 13 tournaments worldwide--when he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
For Els, a victory would be the perfect way to start the new year, one in which the two-time U.S. Open champion is determined to milk more victories out of his talent.
"He [Woods] had an off day and still shot 2 under," Els said. "The talent, the ability is abundant. Let's face it, this guy is great. I've got to find a way to keep up with him."
He did today, even hitting drives 10 yards past Woods at times as Els attacked every hole. While he had few complaints about a 67, it could have been much lower--he missed four birdie putts from eight feet or less.
"It was just a struggle today," Woods said. "It was just a long day, but at least I ended it the right way."