Charles Howell III wasted no time turning the Nissan Open into a one-man show yesterday in Los Angeles, making birdies on the first two holes to open a big lead and then keeping his distance with a 3-under-par 68.

One stroke ahead of Nick Price to start the third round, Howell was four shots ahead after just two holes and didn't do anything to suggest he was going to come back to the field.

Leading by as much as five at one point, Howell settled for a three-stroke advantage over Price going into the final round, his first time as the 54-hole leader.

"I've never been in this position," Howell said. "This is another thing that's new that I'll have to learn how to deal with."

Howell was at 11-under 202, and the list of contenders was short.

It didn't include Tiger Woods, who hit his opening tee shot into the parking lot, hit another shot left-handed and finished with a 2-over 73. Woods was 11 strokes behind, his largest third-round deficit since the Memorial last year (12 shots).

It also was only the second tournament since 1999 that Woods had two rounds over par. He opened with a 72.

The good news?

He had a bet with caddie Steve Williams that if he didn't make birdie on the 18th, Woods would carry his own bag today. His approach stopped four feet in front of the flag, and Woods dropped his club and laughed.

When the putt dropped, he let out a sigh.

"I was relieved," Woods said. "The suffering was over."

Howell, one of the most outgoing players on the PGA Tour, was all business on another picturesque day at Riviera Country Club. Stoic throughout most of the round, he had a two-putt birdie from just off the green on No. 1, and holed from 10 feet for birdie on No. 2.

When Price bogeyed No. 2, he was four shots behind.

Howell plodded along with pars and occasional brilliant shots, such as his approach into 10 feet on No. 11 for an eagle to get to 12 under. He gave back his only shot by missing the 12th fairway, but was steady the rest of the way.

He will be grouped again with Price, whom he first met when Howell was 10 and started working with swing guru David Leadbetter, who also coaches Price.

"Charlie hasn't been there too often," Price said. "That's the only thing I suppose I have going for me. For him, tomorrow is all about game management."

* CHAMPIONS TOUR: In Lutz, Fla., lightning and gusts of 35 to 40 mph halted play at the Verizon Classic, with Bruce Fleisher at 6 under and Hale Irwin at 5 under.

Fleisher and Irwin completed 15 holes in the second round as an approaching storm hit the TPC of Tampa Bay course.

* AUSTRALIA: Karrie Webb parred the only two holes she played to take a one-stroke lead over Laura Davies in the rain-shortened ANZ Ladies Masters in Gold Coast.

Charles Howell III, above, takes a three-shot advantage over Nick Price into the final round.