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Ernie Els
The Big Easy had the birdie putts falling most of Saturday. (Cannon/Getty Images)

Shaky ending not enough to ruin Els' optimism about his play

During what was a stellar round for 15 holes Saturday, Ernie Els admitted, he began thinking ahead and stumbled home with three bogeys. Now, he says, he wants to do it again and finish up the right way.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

CHASKA, Minn. -- Ernie Els stepped behind the podium outside the scorer's trailer late Saturday afernoon and cast a wary eye to the darkening sky.

He had just made three consecutive bogeys to turn what could have been a stellar round at the 91st PGA Championship into a 70 that was merely good given that grand stage. And even the optimists among us knew that Els may have squandered an opportunity to add the third leg of the career Grand Slam to his resume in that shaky 45-minute stretch.

Instead of being one shot off the lead, as he was before that bogey train left the station, Els now trailed perhaps the greatest frontrunner ever in the game by five strokes. He and Tiger Woods are well acquainted, too, after the big South African went into the final round of all four majors in 2000 placed second to the world No. 1.

"It all kind of fell apart on me at the end there," Els said with a shake of his head. "But I've got to take a lot out of it today. I played good. I got to within one shot of the lead and it's not over yet."

If he just could have maintained the momentum that saw him make five birdies in a nine-hole stretch, if he'd managed pars on the final three holes, Els would have been safely in that second-place tie at 6 under. He'd be in the penultimate group with Padraig Harrington on Sunday as the two veterans stalked the fouth major of their careers.

But Els got ahead of himself. The affable South African started thinking about what could have been rather than staying in the moment. A bad chip at the 16th hole started the slide, a missed 2-footer at No. 17 greased the skid and a wayward tee shot at the 18th hole brought an abrupt halt to what had seemed so promising.

"You get rounds like that in major championships and you want to finish it off," Els said with a sigh. "And I was thinking about the finish a little too much."

The man they call the Big Easy had the juices flowing most of Saturday, though. He chipped in at Hazeltine's 12th hole to electrify the massive Minnesota crowd that Els called "unbelievable." The cheers were so loud he said it felt like a home game for him.

"They were standing up in the stands when I was coming up to some of the greens," Els said. "So really wonderful reception we got today from the crowd.  And I could really feel they were pulling for me.  So that's why it's even more disappointing finishing it off today."

Els thinks the gallery is anxious for a competition, not a coronation on Sunday. As much as people respect Woods, they want to see him be challenged, and Els was one of the ones doggedly giving chase. For 15 holes, at least. And hopefully for 18 more on Sunday.

"It's not a runaway deal," Els, who is playing in his 69th major championship, explained. "It looked like a runaway thing at the end of yesterday.  But it looks like the guys are really set to give Tiger a go and the crowd could sense that." 

El certainly isn't ruling out a charge on Sunday similar to the one he made in the third round. He's won two U.S. Opens and one British Open, after all, so he knows more than most what it takes. He's done it the hard way, too -- coming from two strokes behind at the 1997 U.S. Open and winning the 1994 U.S. Open and 2002 British Open in playoffs, to boot.

"I made a couple of bad swings," Els said. "I'd like to rectify that tomorrow.  I think my short game's coming around although I missed a short one on 17. But I feel like a lot of good positive things have been starting to happen. And I'm starting to see shots a lot more clearer and I just gotta keep that going for tomorrow."

The most important thing, given the ground Els must make up, is to keep giving himself chances. Els has hit all but 14 greens in regulation to rank second in that category. If he can just get a few more putts to fall, he might have a chance.

"I've been playing good," Els said. "Felt like I've been playing good all week. The putter was okay today.  I chipped in today.  So a lot of good things happened.  The finish just wasn't great. But I'm not totally out of it.  Probably need something like that tomorrow and obviously gotta finish it off tomorrow."
 

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