Mark O’Meara and Jeff Maggert matched the lowest 54-hole score in the history of the PGA Championship and still trailed Ernie Els by three strokes.
That says a lot about how easy the Riviera Country Club is playing. But it says even more about how well Els is playing.
Holing out once from a bunker and later chipping in from the rough for an eagle, Els shot a 66 on Saturday to go into the final round at 16-under-par 197.
The last time Els had a lead going to the final round of a major championship, he won the U.S. Open in a playoff. If he keeps playing like this, he won’t need extra holes to put away the PGA Championship.
“It was what I wanted to do,” Els said. “I played the round I wanted to play.”
What will Els need today to win?
“Two or three, five under par to make it safe,” he said “You don’t get too many chances to be where I am. You can’t waste an opportunity like this.”
As easy as Riviera had been playing, the winner will almost certainly have to shoot in the 60s today.
“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of backing up out there,” said Maggert, who got into contention with a 65 on Saturday. “I don’t think the condition of the course is going to let that happen.”
O’Meara, who had a third-round 69, agreed.
“I don’t see Ernie shooting par,” he said, “so that shows what the rest of us will have to do.”
There is no telling how low the scores would have gone if putts didn’t bump along over spike marks on their way to the hole.
Els’ 197 was the lowest 54-hole score in a PGA Championship, by score and by relationship to par. Raymond Floyd was 10-under 200 after three rounds at Southern Hills in 1982. Mike Reid was 13-under 203 at Kemper Lakes in 1989.
Colin Montgomerie shot a 67 and was alone in fourth place at 11-under-par 202. Craig Stadler shot his second straight 66 and was at 203 along with Steve Elkington. Jay Haas shot a 64 to get to 9-under along with Jeff Sluman and Justin Leonard.
Greg Norman failed to make a move, shooting a 70, and was 8 under, seven strokes behind Els.
“I had a two-shot lead going to the last round of the U.S. Open and I managed to get into a playoff,” Els said about his victory last year at Oakmont. “I’ll feel safe if I have a five-shot lead going to the 18th hole.”
Els may not feel safe yet, but he appeared comfortable and in complete control.
“This is exactly the same stuff I grew up in in South Africa,” Els said earlier in the tournament about the grass at Riviera Country Club. “This is the only kind of grass we have. Kikuyu is a tough grass and lucky for me I learned how to get out of this stuff.”
That’s exactly what he did, time after time, the best shot being a chip from the rough behind the 11th green. Els chopped down on the ball, it popped onto the green and skidded 30 feet across the putting surface and into the cup for an eagle.
When O’Meara followed by three-putting from 8 feet, Els had a three-stroke lead. They had started the day tied at 11 under par and O’Meara had taken the lead at No. 9 when his approach shot bounced past the hole and spun back to within 2 feet of the cup.
But Els birdied the short par-4 10th hole and then made the eagle at 11 to take control. He rolled in a 4-foot birdie putt on top of O’Meara’s birdie on No. 17 to keep his two-stroke lead, then finished the round with a curling 20-foot birdie putt on the last hole to be three ahead.
It gave Els rounds of 66-65-66 as the elite field continued to have its way with Riviera, where the brown, spike-marked greens have been kept wet so they won’t burn out. As a result, players have used them as dart boards, throwing shots at the hole and having them stay there.
O’Meara and Els, playing together, had their problems with the kikuyu.
O’Meara bogeyed No. 7 when he chunked a greenside chip, not even getting it on the green, and Els bogeyed the next hole when he chunked a similar chip. But it was Els’ only bad shot out of the rough on the day.
The 25-year-old Els was in control all day. Before his round, he looked the picture of confidence as he sat on a fence in the shade near the practice green sipping bottled water.
When he holed out for a birdie from the sand on the third hole, Els high-fived his caddy, O’Meara’s caddy and O’Meara.
xxxx LEADERBOARD Leaders after the third round of the $1.75 million PGA Championship, on the 6,949-yard, par-71 (35-36) Riviera Country Club course in Los Angeles: Ernie Els 66-65-66-197 Mark O’Meara 64-67-69-200 Jeff Maggert 66-69-65-200 Colin Montgomerie 68-67-67-202 Steve Elkington 68-67-68-203 Craig Stadler 71-66-66-203 Jeff Sluman 69-67-68-204 Jay Haas 69-71-64-204 Justin Leonard 68-66-70-204
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