DUBLIN, Ohio — Ernie Els could sense his lead in the Memorial getting away.
He heard the cheers for Tiger Woods ahead of him and K.J. Choi behind him. He watched Fred Couples pour in a couple of birdies to catch him. It was time for the Big Easy to respond, and he did just that — by hooking his tee shot so far left on the par-5 11th that it landed on the other side of the creek.
Suddenly, it all turned around.
Els got the ball back in play and rifled a 5-iron into 20 feet for birdie, a big shot in a round of 6-under 66 that gave him a two-shot lead and his best chance to win at Jack’s place.
“That was definitely a bonus,” Els said.
Aggressive to the end, Els played bogey-free on a sunny afternoon at Muirfield Village and finished at 12-under 204, the first time since the season-opening Mercedes Championships last year that he has held a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour. Els hasn’t squandered a third-round lead on tour in four years, but this won’t be easy.
Couples (68), Choi (68) and Justin Rose (69) were two shots behind. Another stroke back was Stephen Ames (70) and Woods, who has hit the ball where he’s aiming the last 45 holes, shot a 67.
“I’ve got a two-shot lead, but it doesn’t mean much,” Els said. “It means I’m leading the tournament. It means that I’m playing well, doing something right. But I’d rather be leading after tomorrow.”
Couples, the ‘98 winner at Memorial, continued to electrify the gallery with sensational shots. The latest was a wedge he holed from 70 yards on No. 17 for birdie that put him at 206 and in the final group with Els.
“I’ve got a great shot at winning,” Couples said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
Choi spent most of the sunny afternoon sharing top billing with Els on the leaderboard, but he had to recover from a couple of bogeys. The stocky South Korean also birdied the 17th to get to 10-under 206.
Rose stumbled to a double bogey early in the round, but that was his only mistake.
Jack Nicklaus, the 64-year-old tournament host, had to play the last five holes in 1 under for a 77.
Els loves Muirfield Village so much — he hasn’t missed the Memorial since he started playing in 1994 — that he came over after two weeks in Europe, even though this means he will play six straight tournaments through the U.S. Open.
His best chance came in 1996 when he trailed Tom Watson by two shots going into the final round, but stumbled to a 75 and tied for sixth. He was runner-up in 2000, although he finished five shots behind Woods.
He is two shots clear of his closest challengers, and three ahead of Woods. Still, the South African says a charge from anyone is likely today, and he expects Woods to be part of the mix.
“We’ve had our battles in the past, and I’m sure that tomorrow is going to be another one,” Els said. “He’ll will himself to where he needs to be, and I know that. I’ve just got to go out there and play. I’m playing pretty good, and other guys, too. But he’ll be there.”
British Open champion Ben Curtis, tied for the lead with Rose and Ames after 36 holes, had a 73 and left him six shots behind, along with defending champion Kenny Perry (66).
Curtis got off to a rough start even before he made the 20-minute drive from his home in Ostrander. He nicked himself shaving, and was bleeding from the neck on the third tee. After getting some bandages to stop the bleeding, he took double bogey by hitting into the water and never quite recovered.
Els has been on top of his game for the better part of two years, and a victory today will enable him to surpass Vijay Singh at No. 2 in the world ranking.
Eight players were separated by three shots at the start of the round, but Els came out hot. He was aggressive off the tee and at the flag, and surged into the lead with back-to-back birdies on the fifth and sixth holes.
“He attacked the course today,” Couples said. “He started out hitting driver and never let up. He had a couple of breaks, but it was an easy 66.”
Woods stayed in the hunt after his worst swing of the day, a 3-iron that sailed 50 yards left of the 15th green, plunked a spectator on the head and wound up in the 16th fairway. Woods hit a flop shot to the fringe, then made it for an unlikely birdie.
“I needed to somehow get to 9 or 10 (under) to give myself a chance,” Woods said.
Conditions were slightly easier Saturday with only a mild breeze, and if it stays the same today, it could be a thrilling shootout among so many top players.
“You’re still going to have to make birdies,” Woods said. “You can’t make pars and expect to win the tournament.”
Until late birdies by Couples, Choi and Rose, it appeared that Els and Woods might be in the final pairing. Instead, Els will play again with Couples, a good friend and just as laid-back off the course as he is.
“It’s always nice to play with a guy you’ve known a long time,” Els said. “Who knows? Sometimes it’s good to play with a guy that’s kind of your nemesis. It would have been a lot of fun and bit more intense playing with Tiger. But you’ve just got to go with what you have.”
Karrie Webb put herself in position for her first victory of the year, birdieing four of the final five holes for an 8-under 64 and a two-stroke lead in the Kellogg-Keebler Classic at Aurora, Ill.
The Australian star rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 14 and added birdies on the final two holes for an 11-under 133 total. Jill McGill and Seol-An Jeon were tied for second.
Webb, a six-time major winner and two-time LPGA player of the year, has not lived up to her own high standards the last couple of years. She won just once on tour last year and finished out of the top 10 for the first time since joining the LPGA in 1996.
“I know I’m on the right track. I really believe that what I’m working on is going to give me a chance to play that kind of golf,” she said. “If I don’t win tomorrow, still, these are the two most solid rounds I’ve put together this year.”
Webb wasn’t the only big name on the leaderboard.
Five players were within four shots of the lead, including two-time defending champion Annika Sorenstam.
Sorenstam began the day five shots back of the leader but got off to a strong start with a birdie on the par-5 first.
Sorenstam had seven birdies — including four in a row on the back nine — and got to 8 under before a costly three-putt for bogey on the 17th. She finished at 7 under.
Andy Bean shot a 7-under 65 for a share of the second-round lead with Bob Gilder in the Farmers Charity Classic at Ada, Mich.
Bean and Gilder (68) had 10-under 134 totals. First-round leader Sammy Rachels (73), Jim Thorpe (70), Tom Purtzer (69), Stewart Ginn (71) and Vicente Fernandez (71) were tied for third at 7 under.
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