Ernie Els is finding a quick cure for his season of major disappointment.

Instead of sulking over his four close calls in the majors, Els put himself on the verge of his first World Golf Championship title yesterday by ignoring early charges behind him and posting a tidy round of 4-under 68. That gave him a two-shot lead over Thomas Bjorn in the American Express Championship in Thomastown, Ireland.

"I think what happened in August, and July, and June, and April . . . ," Els said, smiling as he paused after each month of each major. "It's past history now. I can't do anything about it. I'm over that, and I'm ready to take it on again."

He has looked like a major force in the blustery conditions at Mount Juliet, where Els has made only two bogeys in three rounds to reach 15-under 201 and his first 54-hole lead since he won the Memorial in May.

Els started slowly, wanting to ease himself into the round without any mistakes. But it wasn't long before Bjorn, Padraig Harrington and British Open champion Todd Hamilton started closing in.

Bjorn was 4 under for his first five holes and shot 66. Harrington birdied six of his first 10 holes and shot 66, leaving him at 204. Hamilton made a steady pursuit with a 69, extending his bogey-free streak to 36 holes.

"I just needed to concentrate on my game, which I did," Els said. "I worked hard to get to where I am. I've got a two-shot lead, and it's good to be in that position again."

The big test comes today, when the most global player in golf will have to hold off an international list of challengers. Hamilton, who also was at 12-under 204, was the only American among the top seven players.

Tiger Woods will need his biggest comeback to win the American Express for a third straight year. He didn't make a birdie until the 10th hole and shot 70, leaving him seven shots behind.

"I'm going to need some help tomorrow," Woods said. "I understand the weather is going to be terrible, so hopefully I can play a great round. [Seven shots] is a long way back, especially when Ernie is playing the way he is."

Mount Juliet doesn't need Woods to spice up this final round.

All three players in the last group -- today will have threesomes because of a nasty forecast -- bring some interesting baggage to this World Golf Championship.

Els often talks about the "little man" in his head, so he and Bjorn might have plenty to talk about.

The last time Bjorn played in Ireland, he walked off the course at the K Club in the middle of the first round when he said "demons" took away his perspective in golf. He returned a few weeks later and has made a slow climb back, turning the corner yesterday with one of his best rounds of the year.

"I just got through the round without a bogey, and that's a very good indication where my golf is," Bjorn said. "I also know that I have a very big day ahead of me tomorrow. There are guys that are there every week. I haven't had a top 10 since February. But my golf is going in the right direction."

The voices Harrington keeps hearing are coming from outside the ropes.

The affable Irishman will have an entire country pulling for him in the final round, not unlike what Mike Weir faced last month in the Canadian Open when he was trying to win his national championship.

* PGA TOUR: U.S. Ryder Cup player Fred Funk surged to the top of the leader board in the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison, Miss., shooting an 8-under 64 to take a one-stroke lead over Steve Pate and Chris Couch.

The 48-year-old Funk, who won the 1998 tournament for the last of his five PGA Tour titles, had an eagle, seven birdies and a bogey on the Annandale Golf Club course to finish 54 holes at 16-under 200.

* CHAMPIONS TOUR: Wayne Levi shot a 4-under 68 at the Constellation Energy Classic in Hunt Valley, Md., giving him a two-stroke lead after two rounds as he bids for his second career tour title.

Levi followed a first-round 64 with three birdies in the first five holes and an eagle on the par-5 16th. On the 16th, Levi's second shot from about 200 yards landed within 15 feet of the hole, and he made the putt.

Jose Maria Canizares and Graham Marsh each fired a 66 to reach 10 under.

Ernie Els, seeking to salvage frustrating season, takes lead into final round of World Golf Championship.