Golf: A glimmer of real Hoch

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Steve Elkington bogeyed the final two holes but will still take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Players' Championship. Elkington, who was four adrift after 54 holes when he won in 1991, had collected six birdies by the time he left the 11th green and looked to be heading out of sight.

But the Australian's wobbly finish, when he three-putted the 17th and hit his approach into a stand and failed to get up and down at the 18th, combined with a 65 from Scott Hoch cut his advantage. Elkington's 68 put him at 13 under.

A byproduct of Hoch's low round of the week was a requirement to pay the press a visit, an activity he has shunned previously this year. He feared being fined his winnings today, which could be up to $630,000 for winning, if he kept silent. On television, Hoch was asked if people don't appreciate him because they don't know him. "Maybe they don't appreciate me because they do know me," he replied.

Hoch apart, no one was doing much charging. Nick Faldo shot a 73 to fall to level par, the same mark as the defending champion Fred Couples and Tiger Woods. Another arch-charger, Greg Norman managed no better than a 72 to stay at one under, while Colin Montgomerie, the leading Briton after two rounds, birdied the 16th, where he hit a 3-wood to eight feet and missed the eagle putt, and 17th, where he coaxed in a three-footer, to advance only one shot to five under.

"The leader is not playing any better than I am," Montgomerie, who lost a play-off to Elkington in the 1995 US PGA, said. "But he is holing the putts and getting reward for his good golf. I'm not. People say that they would give their right arm for my putting stroke, and they can have it."

The Scot missed eight times from ten feet. "Say I hole five out of eight of them, that's what the winner is going to do, and that would be a 66. It's a shame to think I have shot a 71 when I played as well as for the 66 I shot here last year."

Facing the biggest test of his professional career so far, Woods has yet to catch fire. Of course, he is already getting a reputation for making big moves on the weekend, but never found any such moment in his 72. "Of course, the wind was a factor," he said.

"The toughest part is judging the intensity of it on each shot. The rain means the greens are still soft, so you can be aggressive with your iron shots, but it also makes it harder to make the green if you are in the rough." With reference to the US Masters in just over a week, he added: "I'm doing OK. Everything is shaping up nicely for Augusta."

When it comes to putting, Faldo cannot say the same. "It is just not happening for me at the moment," the defending Masters champion said. "Augusta is all about putting. You have got to putt from very well to great. I'm off to find the great."

Faldo came tantalisingly close to the water at both the 16th and 17th and had to admit his whole game, not just his putting was a little off. He is looking forward to a week's practising at home at Lake Nona. "I'll be off as soon as I'm done here," he said.

Norman, who is playing only his third tournament of the year, will instead be playing under competitive conditions at the Freeport McDermott Classic in New Orleans. The Shark will take a similar tack in preparing for the Open at Royal Troon by skipping his usual week at Skibo Castle to play in the World Invitational at Loch Lomond.

Sandy Lyle, whose round of 68 on Thursday promised so much, showed that round was another of his "flourishing moments" as he slumped to a 77.

A blocked drive into the water at the fifth hole set up a triple-bogey seven and he could not get the ball into play off the tee. "I'm going to break my driver over my head in a minute," Lyle sighed afterwards.