Els shrugs off pressure of pursuing Tiger

Late pair of birdies gives South African three-shot breathing room over world No 1 he wishes to usurp

Ernie Els has been here before. It is not the two-shot lead he has on this Desert Classic field that he is sweating on, but the one of three shots he holds over Tiger Woods. A handy cushion, granted, but a comfortable one? Only if you like splinters in your posterior.

Nevertheless, it was probably as much as the South African could hope for. This is just the second tournament in Els's three-year plan to supplant the world No 1 and so far, so good. A third-round 68 took him to 17 under and clear of Henrik Stenson, Jyoti Randhawa and the find of the week, Ross Fisher. Credit to the 26-year-old for still being in there.

"Ross hung in well, on what must have been a very tough afternoon for him," agreed Els, a fellow Wentworthian of the scholarship graduate. "He's always been a hell of a talent and experiences such as these will do him no harm. You know, it's hard to produce when you're leading until you've been through it a few times."

Indeed, a third successive 65 for Fisher would always be a mirage. But then, when a man is possessed in the desert, sometimes it is hard to shake him from his delusions, and right up until Els opened that giant stride of his with two birdies on the final two holes, it seemed that the unknown from Surrey might still keep his trembling hold on the lead. As it is, the birdie putt that scraped the hole on the 18th means that the 26-year-old will not even be in today's final group. However, there is something of a platinum, diamond-encrusted lining. One Tiger Woods will accompany him in the final round, and so the boy who once collected the 12-time major winner's balls on the driving range at the World Match Play will now be an equal.

Of course, close exposure to Woods is invariably dangerous, and it was this realisation of his own intimidation factor that doubtless helped effect the scowl that greeted Woods's 12-footer for eagle on the final hole. When he looked up at the 18th scoreboard he could not believe that his rather stilted progress had moved him on to the tails of the leaders and was aggrieved for not taking full advantage. "I've actually closed the gap with my round today," said a disbelieving Woods after a 67. "And that's kind of surprising, because I figured the guys up front would go five or six under. But it just didn't happen for them."

For his part, Els was just as mystified. "There was some tension out there and for some reason we all found it difficult," he said. One factor Els did come up with was the arduous nature of a day that began for him and Stenson at 7am, when they had to come back to finish their second rounds.

Els struggled to find his rhythm early and was relieved to get through the remaining holes in one under and so stand within one of Fisher. Despite a "three-putt from nowhere" on the first hole of the third round, his renowned rhythm was to return, and by the climax of his 68 he was reflecting "on a few shots I've left out there".

That is forever the way of the perfectionist, although this new, improved Els is determined to abandon that destructive route marked self-denigration. His theory goes along the lines that Woods beats you up badly enough on his own without you giving him a helping hand.

Last night's summing up of his play-off defeat here to Woods last year is a case in point. Ernie merely shrugged his shoulders when asked to recall the approach that he plonked into the water to hand his nemesis yet another title. "Hey, I gave it my best shot," he said. "Just like I will today."

But if that makes it sound as if the expectation is anything but burning within, then it shouldn't. Els is aware that regardless of what happens today there will be a long, long way to go in his audacious pursuit, but also knows the head start it would give him. "I've made it public what my goals are and this would be a great boost to achieving them," he said. "Yeah, it would be sweet."