His post-majors funk behind him, Ernie Els was back in his element yesterday.

Playing some of his best golf in the worst conditions, Els breezed through a wacky day of weather at the American Express Championship in Thomastown, Ireland, by starting with four straight birdies and finishing with an 8-under-par 64, giving him a two-shot lead and hope that he still has a lot to play for this year.

"I didn't know what to expect today," Els 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. British Open champion Todd Hamilton 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).

The weather switched from showers to sunshine, from a warm breeze to cold gusts up to 20 mph, sometimes over the span of three holes. "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. 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.

Justin Leonard, desperate to make the Tour Championship for the 10th straight year, had a 68 and was alone in fourth at 8-under 136. U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen had a 69 and was at 137 with Lee Westwood (69), Thomas Bjorn (69) and Steve Flesch (70).

Woods joined Brad Faxon (68) and Padraig Harrington (69) among those another stroke back.

* CHAMPIONS TOUR: Wayne Levi tied a tournament record with an 8-under 64 and held a one-shot lead over Rodger Davis after the first round of the Constellation Energy Classic in Hunt Valley, Md.

Joe Inman and Eduardo Romero had 67s at the 7,060-yard Hayfields Country Club course and were one shot in front of a group of 11 that included Hale Irwin, Tom Kite and Tom Watson.

Levi tied the course record set by Jose Maria Canizares in 2000 and matched by J.C. Snead in 2002.

* PGA TOUR: Steve Pate closed his 7-under 65 with two birdies to share the lead with Harrison Frazar after two rounds of the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison, Miss.

Pate was at 12-under 132 after two rounds at Annandale Golf Club. Frazar, who had two eagles in his 67, started the round tied for the lead with John Senden and Glen Day. Chris Couch shot a 63 and was tied at 133 with Senden (67) and Patrick Sheehan (68).