Ernie Els held off a bulldoggish Richard Kaplan during the third round of the Alfred Dunhill SA PGA Championship at Johannesburg's Houghton Golf Club on Saturday to take a two shot lead into Sunday's final round and a chance to win his first tournament in 10 months.
The "Big Easy" carded a three-under-par 69 for a three round total of 11-under-par 207, after an up and down 18 holes that, at one stage, had threatened to turn the tournament into a one man show.
Kaplan ended two shots behind as he refused to lie down after the early onslaught from Els, while Australian Peter Lonard moved into third at seven-under-par with the best round of the day, a six-under-par 66.
Kaplan predicted that it was he who would need a good start against Els if he was to remain in contention, but ironically it was his countryman that got off to a flyer. Carding three birdies in the opening three holes, Els blasted into a four shot lead over his adversary and looked set to make a mockery of a strong field. To his credit Kaplan refused to give up and was rewarded for his tenacity as he carded four birdies over the first nine on one, five, seven and nine with his only dropped shot on the par-4 fourth to make the turn at three-under-par.
After his sensational start Els, whose last tournament win was at the Bay Hill Invitational last March, faltered on the sixth and seventh to make the turn two under. The second nine proved to be far less dramatic. Kaplan could only muster one birdie, cancelled out by one dropped shot, while Els' putter let him down as he carded eight consecutive pars, before a birdie on the last gave him some breathing room ahead of Sunday.
"I could've made a couple of putts out there," Els said. "I just about missed all my middle distance putts." Els was nevertheless pleased with the way he is hitting the ball and believes that some early season rustiness may be to blame for an off colour short game. "I just need to work a bit on the mental side," Els said. "I was making stupid mistakes but suppose it's a little early in the season."
As for his face-off with Kaplan on Sunday, Els is not taking anything for granted. "This is his home course, so I've definitely got my work cut out for me."
Lonard's round was the second lowest of the tournament so far and included six birdies in a blemish-free day. Not bad for a man who started with a one-over-par 73 two days before. "Conditions out there were pretty good. They'd set up the course for good scores," Lonard, a 32-year-old from Denistone near Sydney, said.
The burly Australian, who three years ago was forced to take a year off after contracting a debilitating mosquito-born disease, twice chipped in, first from off the green and another from in the bunker. The first earned him a birdie on the par-4 second while the last helped him save par on the par-5 18th. "The greens were set up with the flags close to the edges so you always had a chance of chipping them in," Lonard said modestly.
Lonard may be experiencing a little deja vu. At the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic he tied for second behind Els and he’ll be hoping to reverse that result on Sunday.