Ernie Els applied the lessons he learned in the first two days of the MCI Classic in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, shooting a 5-under 66 on Saturday to take a two-stroke lead over Steve Lowery.
For two rounds, Els watched his playing partner, Davis Love III, pick apart Harbour Town's narrow fairways and tiny greens on the way to the second-round lead. But Els was the third-round master, outduelling Love as the two were paired again.
Love, who has won four times at Harbour Town, fell apart midway through the round with three straight bogeys. But he had tap-in birdies on the 17th and 18th holes to finish with a 70 and move within three strokes of Els.
"I think I've put the work in and it's time, I guess, for it to pay off," said Els, the two-time US Open champion who has not won since Nissan Open last year. "I feel like my game's a lot closer than it seems."
For a while, it looked like Love was lost on a course that he - well, loves. After matching shots with Els through the first seven holes, Love had a string of bogeys and wayward shots.
He stubbed a chip on the eighth hole for one bogey, needed a drop on the ninth for his second and hit into the water on No. 10 for a third consecutive mistake. Just when it looked like he would make his fourth bogey after hitting a marshall with his tee shot on the 11th hole, Love saved par with a 20-foot putt.
"By then I was just laughing about it. Every time I made a mistake he was picking up shots," said Love, who had only had one bogey and one double bogey the first two rounds. The par at No. 11 "seemed to start me on the right direction again," Love said.
Two of his last swings brought him back into contention. He stuck an 8-iron within a foot on the par-3 17th, then knocked a 7-iron within about the same distance on the 18th hole.
"I got myself back in it," Love said. "But I just got caught behind a guy who was playing so well."
But Els wasn't the only one on the first, mild, breezy day that the seaside resort is famous for. Lowery had a 66. Scott Hoch shot a 64. Larry Mize had a 65, his lowest round here in six years. Chris Perry tied the back nine record of 29 for his 65. Curtis Strange, who played only nine rounds all year, shot a 65.
On Thursday, only 36 of 132 players equaled or broke par 71. Two days later, only 13 of the remaining 72 were over par.
"The main difference was it was just enjoyable. It felt great," said Stewart Cink, whose 66 left him tied four shots back with Hoch, Mize, Notah Begay III and first-round leader Dan Forsman.
Els saw the low scores when warming up and knew "the course was out there for the taking," he said. "But it puts a lot of pressure on you. You know you've got to go out there and perform."
Several players did. There were 27 within eight shots of the lead with conditions expected to be even more favorable on Sunday.
"It'll pick up a lot of ground," said Hoch, who had five straight birdies and tied the front-nine mark of 30. "But as far as the leaders, Ernie and Davis have this course pegged."
At least Els did.
He began a stroke behind Love and it looked like the two would tangle for the lead throughout. They matched birdies on No. 2 and Els pulled even two holes later with a 22-foot birdie putt after Love's tee shot on the par-3 came inches away from the water.
Things began to turn for good on the eighth hole when Els cashed in his long birdie putt and Love could not make par.
Els birdied the ninth hole, while Love needed a drop and took bogey.
One more bogey for Love on the 10th turned his dream course - his first victory came here in 1987 and he joined the late Payne Stewart as the only ones with back-to-back wins here - into a nightmare.
"I got in a little funk there," Love said. "But I'll feel a lot more positive about things after the way I finished."
Leading third-round scores from the MCI Heritage Classic in South Carolina (USA unless stated):
201 E Els (SA) 68 67 66 203 S Lowery 73 64 66 204 D Love 68 66 70 205 S Cink 71 68 66, D Forsman 66 71 68, S Hoch 73 68 64, L Mize 73 67 65, N Begay 71 66 68 206 T Herron 68 71 67, J Parnevik (Swe) 70 69 67, E Fryatt (GB) 67 74 65 207 B Fabel 71 67 69, J Kelly 70 71 66, T Lehman 70 70 67, C Strange 73 69 65 208 F Funk 71 69 68, J Huston 71 68 69, B McCallister 74 67 67, J Sluman 72 68 68
211 N Price (Zim) 75 67 69, V Singh (Fij) 70 70 71 212 G Norman (Aus) 71 71 70Reuse content