SAN MARTIN, Calif. (AP) — Ernie Els has won 62 times around the world, three of them major championships. And while his last one came more than 18 months ago, he’s certain he hasn’t forgotten how to win.
Paul Casey has 13 wins in his career, including last week in South Korea.
Both of them were two shots out of the lead Saturday in the Frys.com Open, having to chase a guy who has never won at all.
Briny Baird doesn’t see that as a big disadvantage.
“It’s got to be good,” Baird said after a 7-under 64 made him the outright 54-hole leader for the first time in his PGA Tour career. “I’ll ask them what they’re thinking on every hole. I’d get some really good answers, and it would probably drive them insane.”
Truth is, Baird wasn’t sure what to think.
All that mattered on his gorgeous day at CordeValle was that he felt comfortable with his game, especially when standing on the 17th tee box, 294 yards from the flag over the water. He picked out a line toward the left of the green and pulled off the perfect shot, the ball rolling down the backboard to 15 feet to set up an eagle.
Despite hitting into the hazard for a bogey on the last hole, he was in foreign territory – atop the leaderboard.
It was only the third time that Baird, who was at 13-under 200, has been atop the leaderboard going into the final round on the PGA Tour, and the first time since he was tied after 54 holes at Disney seven years ago. He has never won in 357 previous attempts over 12 seasons, which was pointed out to him not long after he finished his round.
So how does he approach this opportunity?
“Whatever I thought about the other times, throw that out the window,” Baird said. “At Disney, I just played so-so. Unless you have an eight-shot lead, so-so is not going to cut it. If I can feel tomorrow like I did today … of course, if I knew how to do that, I’d be something.”
Mediocre play most likely won’t cut it at the Frys.com Open.
Even as Els settled into disappointing pars on the easier holes down the stretch, and Casey kept in the hunt throughout most of the sunny day along the vineyards at CordeValle, there were plenty of other players lining up behind them.
Tiger Woods wasn’t among them.
Woods played steadily again for a 3-under 68, although that wasn’t enough on this day. It was the first time since his season-opening start at Torrey Pines that Woods posted consecutive rounds under 70. Even so, he was nine shots behind in a tie for 38th.
“It’s getting better,” said Woods, playing for the first time in seven weeks. “I’m improving day by day, which is good. Obviously, tomorrow I need to improve a lot and make putts and post a really low one.”
Els had a two-shot lead when he blistered a 5-wood out of the first cut of rough on the par-5 ninth and barely cleared the water to set up a short eagle putt. But he three-putted for bogey on the 10th, and that took away his moment.
He had to settle for a 67, while Casey recovered from his tee shot into the hazard for par and a 68.
Adam Hadwin, the Canadian who contended at his national open in July, was 5 under in a five-hole stretch on the back nine for a 64 that put him at 10-under 203 with a large group that included Charlie Wi (64), Bryce Molder (65) and 21-year-old Bud Cauley, who left Alabama to turn pro. Walking along side Els – the Big Easy looked like a giant – Cauley held his own with a 68.
Woods said he figured the conditions would allow for a 62 or 63. He probably didn’t think it would come from Jim Renner, who made the cut on the number Saturday morning when the fog-delayed second round was completed, then shot 62 and is five shots behind.
A week ago in Las Vegas, Kevin Na ended an 0-for-210 drought on the PGA Tour by winning for the first time. Baird has that beat by miles, and his $11.9 million in career earnings is the most of anyone without a tour win.
Baird didn’t take any inspiration out of Na finally breaking through, just as it didn’t move him when Harrison Frazar finally won this year in Memphis and Tim Clark cashed in at The Players Championship a year ago.
“I don’t look at it and say, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ My world is not going to come to an end if I play well and win the golf tournament. It’s more of a bucket list,” Baird said.
Els hasn’t had a top 10 all year, and he only added this Fall Series event to work on his game, work out of this slump, and try to get more comfortable with the belly putter. It helps, too, that Hasso Plattner owns CordeValle. Plattner also is a founder of SAP, one of Els’ primary corporate sponsors.
“Sometimes you’ve got to listen to the boss,” Els said, laughing. “He’s a good friend. It’s a good golf course. I’m glad I’m here.”
Els has been around long enough – and has won enough – that he hasn’t forgotten how. Casey found that out himself last week when he won on the Korean Golf Tour.
They will be in the last group with Baird, who still doesn’t know that feeling of winning.