Golf: Final birdie keeps Els out in front

THE double US Open champion Ernie Els birdied the last hole to score a second successive 69 and take a two-shot lead into the final round of the South African PGA championship in Johannesburg yesterday.

Els' climactic birdie - via a bunker and a 15-foot putt - helped repulse a strong challenge from his compatriot Richard Kaplan, whose normal tournament experience is considerably less promising than this.

Els started the third day on eight under par, two clear of Kaplan, playing his home Houghton Golf Club course. The world number five then surged ahead with successive birdies over his opening three holes. Kaplan, a regular on the Asian tour and a considerably shorter hitter than Els, was then four behind. But he took advantage of the leader's faltering performance as he approached the turn, made four birdies of his own and so narrow the gap to one shot.

It stayed that way until the par-five 18th, which Els birdied from five metres for a tournament score of 11-under-par 205. Kaplan, who would earn himself a three-year exemption on the tour if he won this European co- sanctioned event, also returned a 69 to finish on nine-under 207.

The Australian Peter Lonard, winner of the Australian Masters in 1997 and still hunting his first European Tour victory, made the biggest climb up the leaderboard with a 66. The 31-year-old's round was the second best of the tournament, and placed him third on a seven-under-par 209.

The main British challengers, Peter Baker of England and Mark Mouland from Wales, both slipped back against the leaders. Baker's 71 puts him on 212, seven off the pace; and Mouland's 73 leaves him seven behind. Ireland's Paul McGinley, however, had a second successive 69 to make further great strides after his shoddy opening 77.

Going in the opposite direction equally as fast is the first-round leader, Nico van Rensberg of South Africa. He added a four-over-par 76 yesterday to his second round 74. The dizzy heights of Thursday's 65 must now seem as distant as a previous existence.

lBrandel Chamblee defied strong winds to fire a four- under-par 66 and take a one-stroke lead after two rounds of the Hawaiian Open in Honolulu. Among those breathing down his neck just two shots back, however, is the defending title-holder John Huston - the man most of the pros blame for this year's high scoring.

Officials redesigned the Waialae Country Club after Huston won last year with a score of 28-under par 260. They added 48 yards to the course, deepened its rough, and shaved two strokes off the par of 70. The result has been scoring this week that averages two strokes higher per round.

The first-round leader, Tommy Tolles, fired a 72, nine strokes above his first-round total, to share second with Mike Hulbert at 135 on a day when many of the tour's finest players were over par. John Daly could have been right up with the leaders, but for problems at the par four, 396-yard 15th. Overcooking his approach, he flew the green and finished with a seven en route to a 69 for 138.